Characterizing Lymph Node Burden With Elective Unilateral Neck Irradiation in Human Papillomavirus-Positive Tonsil Squamous Cell Carcinoma: Defining the Upper Limits

Cureus. 2022 Jul 31;14(7):e27521. doi: 10.7759/cureus.27521. eCollection 2022 Jul.


Objectives Elective unilateral neck irradiation in well-lateralized tonsil carcinoma for N2b disease is controversial. Metrics regarding nodal burden beyond the N-stage to define the upper limit of this de-escalation approach remain limited. We investigated the role of nodal number, level, and volume on outcomes in patients with well-lateralized tonsil carcinoma treated with this approach. Methods A total of 37 patients received radiotherapy (RT) with unilateral neck coverage for well-lateralized tonsil cancer. Of patients, 95% had p16+ disease, and 81% were staged with positron emission tomography/computed tomography. The majority of patients received definitive chemoradiation on prospective de-escalation trials. Ten patients had ipsilateral neck dissections and were treated adjuvantly. The median RT dose to the ipsilateral neck (generally II-IV) was 45 Gy. The effects of nodal number, max dimension, volume, and level on recurrence-free survival (RFS) and overall survival (OS) were to be analyzed via Cox proportional hazards (Cox-PH). Results After a median follow-up of 3.9 years, two-year RFS and two-year OS were 100% and 97%, respectively. Given the 0% contralateral recurrence rate, Cox-PH analysis was not performed. Of patients, 70% were American Joint Committee on Cancer (AJCC) 7th edition N2b, with a median number of nodes, number of nodal levels, max dimension, and volume of two, one, 3.4 cm, and 15.6 cc, respectively. There were several patients with low-lying nodes; aggregate nodal volume measured was up to 85.4 cc. Conclusion Unilateral neck irradiation in well-lateralized tonsil carcinoma resulted in no contralateral recurrence. Nodal volume, level, and number do not seem to have a significant impact on outcomes.

Keywords: head and neck squamous cell cancer; hpv-related oropharyngeal cancer; human papilloma virus; intensity-modulated radiotherapy; ipsilateral neck radiation; oral and oropharyngeal cancer; quality of life.