Objectives: Combined positron emission tomography and computed tomography (PET-CT) is used for the diagnostic evaluation and staging of squamous cell carcinoma of the head and neck (SCCHN). By superimposing anatomic localization of CT with the physiologic data of PET, occult primary and metastatic neoplasms might be identified. Because the diagnostic algorithm for cystic neck masses in adults often overlaps with the work-up of cancer of unknown primary site, we evaluated the utility of PET-CT scans to identify the presence of malignancy and the location of primary tumor.
Study design: Single-institution retrospective case review series.
Methods: We reviewed the PET-CT imaging of cystic neck masses occurring in five patients over 40 years of age with significant risk factors for SCCHN and correlated this information with histopathology.
Results: In each patient in our series, the PET portion of a combined PET-CT was misleading, whereas the CT examination was more suggestive of the correct pathology. Ultimately, clinical judgment and endoscopic evaluation, guided by CT findings, were most valuable for distinguishing malignant versus benign processes and identifying the primary tumor sites.
Conclusions: PET-CT may not be a reliable modality for identifying malignancy in adults with suspicious cystic neck masses. A thorough clinical evaluation by an experienced head and neck surgeon, in conjunction with contrast-enhanced CT, may be sufficient to facilitate the optimal management of such patients.