Effect of smoking on oxygen delivery and outcome in patients treated with radiotherapy for head and neck squamous cell carcinoma--a prospective study

Radiother Oncol. 2012 Apr;103(1):38-44. doi: 10.1016/j.radonc.2012.01.011. Epub 2012 Mar 3.


Background: Head and neck cancer patients with high hemoglobin respond better to irradiation compared to patients with low hemoglobin possibly due to hypoxia induced radioresistance. The hemoglobin level is, however, a crude indicator of the amount of oxygen available to the tissue and may be influenced by a number of factors, smoking being of potential importance. The aim of the present study was to examine the effect of smoking on available oxygen to tumors and the effect on outcome in head and neck cancer patients treated with radiotherapy in a prospective study.

Materials and methods: A total of 232 consecutive patients with squamous cell carcinoma of the larynx, pharynx and oral cavity completed questionnaires on smoking habits prior to treatment. Venous blood samples were collected before and/or during treatment to determine the hemoglobin and carboxyhemoglobin level. Patients were treated with primary curative radiotherapy 62-68 Gy, 2 Gy/fx, 5 fx/week.

Results: All but 12 patients had a history of smoking, 35 were long term quitters, 23 recent quitters, 54 moderate smokers and 108 heavy smokers (>1 pack/day). There was no relationship between total hemoglobin and carboxyhemoglobin, but effective hemoglobin and carboxyhemoglobin were linearly correlated. The amount of carboxyhemoglobin increased with increasing smoking status. Actuarial 5-year univariate analysis showed that heavy smokers had a significantly reduced probability of loco-regional control (44% vs. 65%, p = 0.001), disease-specific (56% vs. 77%, p = 0.003) and overall survival (39% vs. 66%, p = 0.0004) compared to non-smoking patients. Multivariate analyses showed that patients characterized as non-smokers, with low T and N classifications and high hemoglobin level had the best outcome measurements. A rise in carboxyhemoglobin significantly decreased the probability of loco-regional control and each additional pack year increased the risk of death. Smokers and former smokers develop secondary cancers.

Conclusion: The study showed a significant negative impact of smoking during radiotherapy for head and neck cancer and the risk of death was increased with each additional pack year of smoking. The effect on loco-regional control could be explained by a rise in carboxyhemoglobin level in smokers, e.g. a reduced oxygen supply to tumors. The data strongly advocate that smoking should be avoided in order to improve the therapeutic efficacy of radiotherapy and development of other smoking-related diseases and/or secondary cancers.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Aged
  • Aged, 80 and over
  • Carboxyhemoglobin / analysis
  • Carcinoma, Squamous Cell / blood
  • Carcinoma, Squamous Cell / mortality
  • Carcinoma, Squamous Cell / radiotherapy*
  • Female
  • Head and Neck Neoplasms / blood
  • Head and Neck Neoplasms / mortality
  • Head and Neck Neoplasms / radiotherapy*
  • Hemoglobins / analysis
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Oxygen / metabolism*
  • Proportional Hazards Models
  • Prospective Studies
  • Smoking / metabolism*
  • Squamous Cell Carcinoma of Head and Neck


  • Hemoglobins
  • Carboxyhemoglobin
  • Oxygen