Objectives: To evaluate the necessity, technical feasibility, and complication rate of neck dissection performed on patients with head and neck cancer after 5 cycles of concomitant chemoradiotherapy (CRT) and to justify a selective neck dissection (SND) approach and define the optimal timing of post-CRT neck dissection.
Design and setting: Retrospective analysis in an academic university medical center.
Patients: Sixty-nine eligible patients with advanced (stage III and IV) head and neck cancer who have undergone 1 of 4 CRT protocols. Patients ranged in age from 36 to 75 years, and surgical procedures were performed over a 4-year period. Follow-up ranged from 6 to 64 months.
Intervention: Neck dissection (most commonly unilateral SND) performed within 5 to 17 weeks after CRT completion.
Main outcome measures: Complication rate and incidence of positive pathology (viable cancer) in pathologic neck dissection specimens.
Results: Seven (10%) of 69 patients developed wound healing complications, 4 (6%) of whom required surgical intervention for ultimate closure. There were no wound infections. Other complications occurred in 11 (16%) of 69 patients and included need for tracheotomy, nerve transection and paresis, and permanent hypocalcemia. Twenty-four (35%) of 69 patients revealed microscopic residual disease. Ten (50%) of 20 patients with N3 neck disease had positive pathology, whereas 14 (36%) of 39 patients with N2 disease had viable carcinoma in the dissection specimen (P =.09 by chi(2) analysis). There was no significant relation between radiologic complete response or partial response and residual microscopic cancer. In 1 patient, disease recurred in the neck after dissection. Mean follow-up time was 30.3 months.
Conclusions: (1) Neck dissection for patients with N2 or greater neck disease after CRT is necessary to eradicate residual disease. (2) The complication rate of SND after CRT with hyperfractionated radiotherapy is low. (3) SNDs are technically feasible when performed within the "window" between the acute and chronic CRT injury (4-12 weeks). (4) SNDs, rather than more radical procedures, appear to be therapeutically appropriate in this group of patients because of the low incidence of disease recurrence in the neck.