Swallowing After Primary TORS and Unilateral or Bilateral Radiation for Low- to Intermediate-Risk Tonsil Cancer

Otolaryngol Head Neck Surg. 2022 Sep;167(3):484-493. doi: 10.1177/01945998211059967. Epub 2021 Nov 16.


Objective: The primary course of treatment for patients with low- to intermediate-risk tonsil cancer has evolved with a shift toward primary transoral robotic surgery (TORS) or radiation therapy (RT). While favorable outcomes have been reported after deintensification via unilateral TORS or RT (uniRT), comparisons of functional outcomes between these treatments are lacking. We compared clinical outcomes (Dynamic Imaging Grade of Swallowing Toxicity [DIGEST] and feeding tube [FT]) and patient-reported swallowing outcomes (MD Anderson Dysphagia Inventory [MDADI]) based on primary treatment strategy: TORS, uniRT, or bilateral RT (biRT).

Study design: Secondary analysis of prospective cohort.

Setting: Single institution.

Methods: The study sample comprised 135 patients with HPV/p16+ T1-T3, N0-2b (American Joint Committee on Cancer, seventh edition), N0-1 (eighth edition) squamous cell carcinoma of the tonsil were sampled from a prospective registry. Modified barium swallow studies graded per DIGEST, FT placement and duration, and MDADI were collected.

Results: Baseline DIGEST grade significantly differed among treatment groups, with higher dysphagia prevalence in the TORS group (34%) vs the biRT group (12%, P = .04). No significant group differences were found in DIGEST grade or dysphagia prevalence at subacute and longitudinal time points (P = .41). Mean MDADI scores were similar among groups at baseline (TORS, 92; uniRT, 93; biRT, 93; P = .90), subacute (TORS, 83; uniRT, 88; biRT, 82; P = .38) and late time points (TORS, 86; uniRT, 86; biRT, 87; P = .99). FT placement and duration significantly differed among primary treatment groups (FT [median days]: TORS, 89% [3]; uniRT, 8% [82]; biRT, 37% [104]; P < .001).

Conclusion: While TORS and uniRT offer optimal functional outcomes related to dysphagia, results suggest that no measurable clinician-graded or patient-reported differences in swallow outcomes exist among these primary treatment strategies and biRT. Aside from baseline differences that drive treatment selection, differences in FT rate and duration by primary treatment strategy likely reflect diverse toxicities beyond dysphagia.

Keywords: dysphagia; head and neck cancer; radiation; surgery; unilateral.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural

MeSH terms

  • Carcinoma, Squamous Cell* / pathology
  • Carcinoma, Squamous Cell* / radiotherapy
  • Carcinoma, Squamous Cell* / surgery
  • Deglutition
  • Deglutition Disorders*
  • Humans
  • Oropharyngeal Neoplasms* / pathology
  • Robotic Surgical Procedures* / adverse effects
  • Tonsillar Neoplasms* / radiotherapy
  • Tonsillar Neoplasms* / surgery