Head and neck squamous cell carcinoma of unknown primary: neck dissection and radiotherapy or definitive radiotherapy

Head Neck. 2014 Nov;36(11):1589-1595. doi: 10.1002/hed.23479. Epub 2013 Nov 18.


Background: Management of head and neck carcinoma from unknown primary (HNCUP) remains controversial, with neck dissection and radiotherapy (RT) or definitive RT both commonly used. The purpose of this study was to characterize HNCUP and retrospectively compare outcomes for patients treated with neck dissection + RT versus definitive RT.

Methods: From 1994 to 2009, 41 patients with HNCUP underwent either neck dissection + RT (n = 22) or definitive RT ± concurrent chemotherapy (n = 19) at our institution. Treatment outcomes were compared using Kaplan-Meier methods and log-rank test.

Results: There were no differences between patients treated with neck dissection + RT and definitive RT in overall survival (OS), progression-free survival (PFS), locoregional relapse-free survival (LRFS), freedom from locoregional failure (FFLRG), or freedom from distant failure (FFDF). Among 17 patients who underwent neck dissection + RT for whom human papillomavirus (HPV) status could be determined, HPV(+) patients trended toward improved OS (p = .06) and PFS (p = .15).

Conclusion: Neck dissection and postoperative RT resulted in similar outcomes as definitive RT. The prognostic implications of HPV(+) nodes in HNCUP are similar to those in oropharyngeal primary cancers.

Keywords: human papillomavirus; neck dissection; radiation therapy; unknown primary.

Publication types

  • Comparative Study
  • Evaluation Study

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Aged
  • Chi-Square Distribution
  • Combined Modality Therapy
  • Databases, Factual
  • Disease-Free Survival
  • Female
  • Head and Neck Neoplasms / mortality
  • Head and Neck Neoplasms / secondary*
  • Head and Neck Neoplasms / therapy*
  • Humans
  • Kaplan-Meier Estimate
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Neck Dissection / methods*
  • Neck Dissection / mortality
  • Neoplasm Invasiveness / pathology
  • Neoplasm Staging
  • Neoplasms, Unknown Primary / mortality
  • Neoplasms, Unknown Primary / pathology*
  • Neoplasms, Unknown Primary / therapy
  • Prognosis
  • Radiotherapy, Adjuvant
  • Radiotherapy, Image-Guided / methods*
  • Retrospective Studies
  • Risk Assessment
  • Statistics, Nonparametric
  • Survival Analysis
  • Treatment Outcome
  • United States