Importance: Major depressive disorder develops in up to half the patients undergoing treatment for head and neck cancer, resulting in significant morbidity; therefore, preventing depression during cancer treatment may be of great benefit.
Objective: To determine whether prophylactic use of the antidepressant escitalopram oxalate would decrease the incidence of depression in patients receiving primary therapy for head and neck cancer.
Design, setting, and participants: A randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled trial of escitalopram vs placebo was conducted in a group of nondepressed patients diagnosed as having head and neck cancer who were about to enter cancer treatment. Patients were stratified by sex, site, stage (early vs advanced), and primary modality of treatment (radiation vs surgery).
Main outcome and measure: The primary outcome measure was the number of participants who developed moderate or greater depression (scores on the Quick Inventory of Depressive Symptomology-Self Rated of ≥11).
Results: From January 6, 2008, to December 28, 2011, 148 patients were randomized. Significantly fewer patients receiving escitalopram developed depression (24.6% in the placebo group vs 10.0% in the escitalopram group; stratified log-rank test, P = .04). A Cox proportional hazards regression model compared the 2 treatment groups after controlling for age, baseline smoking status, and stratification variables. The hazard ratio of 0.37 (95% CI, 0.14-0.96) demonstrated an advantage of escitalopram (P = .04). Patients undergoing radiotherapy as the initial modality were significantly more likely to develop depression than those undergoing surgery (radiotherapy compared with surgery group; hazard ratio, 3.6; 95% CI, 1.38-9.40; P = .009). Patients in the escitalopram group who completed the study and were not depressed rated their overall quality of life as significantly better for 3 consecutive months after cessation of drug use.
Conclusions and relevance: In nondepressed patients undergoing treatment for head and neck cancer, prophylactic escitalopram reduced the risk of developing depression by more than 50%. In nondepressed patients who completed the trial, quality of life was also significantly better for 3 consecutive months after cessation of drug use in the escitalopram group. These findings have important implications for the treatment of patients with head and neck cancer.
Trial registration: clinicaltrials.gov Identifier: NCT00536172.