The accuracy of clinical neck staging for p16-positive and negative oropharyngeal cancer and its therapeutic implications

Eur Arch Otorhinolaryngol. 2022 Nov;279(11):5339-5345. doi: 10.1007/s00405-022-07430-7. Epub 2022 Jul 4.


Purpose: Oropharyngeal squamous cell carcinoma (OPSCC) may be treated with primary surgery or primary (chemo)radiation. While surgery with concurrent neck dissection provides definitive pathological staging of the neck, non-surgical treatment relies on clinical staging for treatment planning. To assess the accuracy of clinical neck staging, we compared clinical to surgical staging after primary surgery in patients with p16-negative and p16-positive OPSCC.

Methods: Retrospective analysis of clinical, pathological, and oncologic outcome data of patients with OPSCC treated with primary surgery and bilateral neck dissection. Clinical and pathological nodal status were compared for p16-negative and p16-positive patients. Patients with occult metastatic disease were analyzed in detail.

Results: 95 patients were included. 60.5% of p16-negative patients and 66.6% of p16-positive patients had pathologically confirmed metastatic neck disease. p16-positive patients had improved 24-month recurrence-free survival compared to p16-negative patients at 93.3% vs. 69.6%. Pathological N-status differed from clinical N-status in 36.8% of p16-negative patients vs. 31.6% of p16-positive patients. Occult metastatic disease was more common in p16-negative patients at 18.4% vs. 8.8% for p16-positive patients. Clinical detection sensitivity for extranodal extension was low overall; sensitivity was 27.3% and specificity was 91.6% for p16-negative patients vs. 61.5% and 80.0% for p16-positive patients, respectively.

Conclusion: Our data show a considerable degree of inaccuracy of clinical neck staging results in all OPSCC patients which needs to be taken into consideration during therapy planning. For p16-positive patients, these findings warrant attention in the context of therapy deintensification to avoid undertreatment.

Keywords: Clinical staging; Extranodal extension; Neck metastases; Oropharyngeal squamous cell carcinoma; Therapy deintensification.

MeSH terms

  • Carcinoma, Squamous Cell* / pathology
  • Head and Neck Neoplasms* / pathology
  • Humans
  • Neoplasm Staging
  • Oropharyngeal Neoplasms* / pathology
  • Papillomavirus Infections* / pathology
  • Prognosis
  • Retrospective Studies
  • Squamous Cell Carcinoma of Head and Neck / pathology