Metastatic head and neck cancer: role and usefulness of FDG PET in locating occult primary tumors

Radiology. 1999 Jan;210(1):177-81. doi: 10.1148/radiology.210.1.r99ja48177.


Purpose: To assess the usefulness of 2-[fluorine-18]fluoro-2-deoxy-D-glucose (FDG) positron emission tomography (PET) of the head and neck in locating occult primary lesions in patients with metastatic cervical adenopathy.

Materials and methods: Seventeen patients with metastatic cervical adenopathy of unknown primary origin were referred for FDG PET of the head and neck. All patients had undergone correlative anatomic imaging within 1 month of FDG PET. Surgical, clinical, and histopathologic findings were used to assess the performance of FDG PET.

Results: Increased apical lung uptake at FDG PET led to a biopsy-proved diagnosis of primary lung cancer in two patients. Of the remaining 15 patients, 10 had a focus of increased activity; directed biopsy of these sites led to confirmation of a primary carcinoma in seven patients. Correlative anatomic imaging failed to demonstrate the primary sites of disease in two of these seven patients. None of the five patients with negative FDG PET studies have manifested evidence of a primary site of disease during follow-up of 8-42 months (mean, 29 months).

Conclusion: FDG PET allows effective localization of the unknown primary site of origin in metastatic head and neck cancer and can contribute substantially to patient care.

MeSH terms

  • Adenocarcinoma / diagnostic imaging
  • Adenocarcinoma / secondary
  • Adult
  • Aged
  • Aged, 80 and over
  • Carcinoma, Squamous Cell / diagnostic imaging
  • Carcinoma, Squamous Cell / secondary
  • Female
  • Fluorodeoxyglucose F18*
  • Head and Neck Neoplasms / diagnostic imaging*
  • Head and Neck Neoplasms / secondary*
  • Humans
  • Lymphatic Metastasis / diagnostic imaging
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Neoplasms, Unknown Primary / diagnostic imaging*
  • Radiopharmaceuticals*
  • Tomography, Emission-Computed*


  • Radiopharmaceuticals
  • Fluorodeoxyglucose F18