Salvage surgery for patients with recurrent squamous cell carcinoma of the upper aerodigestive tract: When do the ends justify the means?

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Objectives/Hypotheses: Salvage surgery is widely viewed as a 'double- edged sword.' It is the best option for many patients with recurrent cancer of the upper aerodigestive tract, especially when original therapy included irradiation, yet it may provide only modest benefit at high personal cost to the patient. The stakes are high because alternatives are of limited value. The primary objective of this study was to fully assess the value of salvage surgical procedures in the treatment of local and regional recurrence. The following hypotheses were developed to focus the study design and data analysis. 1) The efficacy of salvage surgery correlates recurrent stage, recurrent site, and time to presalvage recurrence. 2) The economic and noneconomic costs of salvage surgery increase with higher recurrent stage. 3) Information relating the value of salvage surgery to recurrent stage and recurrent site will be useful to these patients and the physicians who treat them. Study Design: Two complimentary methods of investigation were used: a meta-analysis of the published literature and a prospective observational study of patients undergoing salvage surgery for recurrent cancer of the upper aerodigestive tract. Methods: The meta-analysis combined 32 published reports to obtain an estimate of average treatment effect for salvage surgery with regard to survival, disease-free survival, surgical complications, and operative mortality. The prospective observational study included detailed data in 109 patients who underwent salvage surgery. In addition to parameters studied in the meta-analysis, we obtained baseline and interval quality of life data (Functional Living Index for Cancer [FLIC] scores), baseline and interval performance status evaluations (Performance Status Scale for Head and Neck Cancer Patients [PSS head and neck scores]), length of hospital stay, and hospital and physician charges, and related this data primarily to recurrent stage, recurrent site, and time to presalvage recurrence. Results: The weighted average of 5-year survival in the meta-analysis was 39% in 1,080 patients from 28 different institutions. In the prospective study, median disease-free survival was 17.9 months in 109 patients, and this correlated strongly with recurrent stage, weakly with recurrent site, and not at all with time to presalvage recurrence. Noneconomic costs for patients and economic costs correlated with recurrent stage, but not with site. Baseline FLIC and PSS head and neck scores correlated with recurrent stage, but not with site. After salvage surgery the percentage of patients reaching or exceeding baseline was 51% for FLIC scores, and this differed significantly with recurrent stage. Postoperative interval 'success' in PSS head and neck subscale scores for diet and eating in public also correlated with recurrent stage. Conclusions: Overall, the expected efficacy for salvage surgery in patients with recurrent head and neck cancer was surprisingly good, but success was limited and costs were great in stage III and, especially, in stage IV recurrences. A strong correlation of efficacy and noneconomic costs with recurrent stage allowed the creation of expectation profiles that may be useful to patients. Additional systematic clinical research is needed to improve results. In the end, the decision to undergo salvage surgery should be a personal choice made by the patient after honest and compassionate discussion with his or her surgeon.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1-18
Number of pages18
Issue number3 II
StatePublished - Mar 2000


  • Head and neck cancer
  • Performance status
  • Quality of life
  • Recurrence
  • Salvage surgery

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Otorhinolaryngology


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