Purpose: The role of neck dissection after radiation therapy ([RT] with or without chemotherapy) for regionally advanced head and neck cancer is controversial. As much as 50% of residual lymphadenopathy after radiation has no viable tumor cells present on histopathologic analysis. [(18)F] fluorodeoxyglucose positron emission tomography (FDG PET) imaging can detect metabolically active cancer. This study examines the ability of post-RT FDG PET imaging to predict the tumor status of residual lymphadenopathy after nonsurgical management of regionally advanced neck disease.
Methods and material: From February 2000 to October 2002, 41 patients were treated definitively by radiation (with or without chemotherapy) and underwent FDG PET and computed tomography (CT) imaging after treatment to assess response. Patients with negative CT and FDG PET scans were observed and did not undergo neck dissection. Patients with radiographically persistent lymphadenopathy underwent either neck dissection or fine-needle aspiration of the lymph nodes using ultrasound guidance. The results of the FDG PET scans were correlated with the pathologic findings.
Results: Twelve patients with persistent lymphadenopathy underwent either neck dissection or fine-needle aspiration. Four of the 12 were found to have viable residual tumor in the cervical lymph nodes. The pathology did not correlate with the size of the lymph nodes in the pre-RT or post-RT CT studies. However, the pathology correlated strongly with the post-RT FDG PET studies. All patients with a negative post-RT FDG PET or those with a maximum standardized uptake value (SUV(max)) of less than 3.0 in the post-RT FDG PET were found to be free of residual viable tumor. Using an SUV(max) of less than 3.0 as the criterion for a negative FDG PET study, the negative predictive value was 100% and the positive predictive value was 80%.
Conclusions: A negative post-RT FDG PET scan is very predictive of negative pathology in neck dissection or fine-needle aspiration even with large residual lymphadenopathy. Therefore, if the post-RT FDG PET scan is negative, neck dissection might not be required for regional control. A prospective study with longer follow-up and greater patient numbers is needed to determine whether a policy of deferring neck dissection based on a negative FDG PET is supported.