Background: Nasopharyngeal carcinoma (NPC) is a radiosensitive tumor for which there is a high local control rate after radical radiotherapy (RT). However, for patients with locoregionally advanced disease, the rate of distant metastasis is high and the 5-year overall survival rate is poor.
Methods: A review of retrospective and prospective clinical studies was performed to assess the role of chemotherapy in three settings: metastatic disease; neoadjuvant and/or adjuvant; and concurrent chemotherapy with radiotherapy.
Results: Cisplatin-based combination chemotherapy results in a high response rate in patients with metastatic NPC, and a subgroup may achieve long term disease free survival. The use of neoadjuvant and adjuvant chemotherapy to treat locoregionally advanced disease has resulted in consistently high response rates, but no randomized trial to date has demonstrated an improvement in overall survival. A recent Head and Neck Intergroup study randomized patients in the United States to receive concurrent chemotherapy (cisplatin) and radiotherapy or radiotherapy only. Although this approach demonstrated significant benefit in overall survival favoring the use of concurrent chemotherapy and radiotherapy, its applicability in geographic areas of high NPC incidence remains to be proven.
Conclusions: NPC is a chemosensitive tumor, and patients with metastatic disease have a high response rate. Further prospective studies will define the standard approach to treating locoregionally advanced NPC, which is likely to incorporate into the primary treatment some form of systemic chemotherapy.