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This is a plain English summary of an original research article. The views expressed are those of the author(s) and reviewer(s) at the time of publication.

People with head and neck cancer in the UK usually receive chemotherapy and radiotherapy followed by surgery. Using a scan to assess cancer status after this first line chemoradiotherapy and only suggesting surgery to those with a clear indication led to similar survival rates, complications and fewer operations compared with planned cancer surgery for everyone.

After receiving similar initial treatment, this trial compared routine neck dissection surgery to surgery only if the scan showed residual cancer 12 weeks after chemoradiotherapy.

Head and neck surgery can be invasive and disfiguring, so doctors and patients alike want to minimise unnecessary operations, this potentially saves money.

The scanning tested was PET-CT scanning, a newer type of highly detailed CT scanning. This scan guided surveillance is not currently covered by NICE guidance. These findings suggest there may be a place for it and that by saving surgery for some people it could also save costs, compared to planning surgery for everyone without a surveillance scan.

Why was this study needed?

Head and neck cancer is uncommon. New cases range from 8 per 100,000 adults in the Thames and Oxford regions, to 5 per 100,000 in Wales and in the North Western region.

Studies have shown that some residual cancer is found during surgery in around 40% of patients after chemoradiotherapy, indicating surgery was warranted. But advances in chemoradiotherapy suggest that more patients will be largely free of cancer, and PET-CT has the potential to give more detailed imaging than previous techniques.

PET-CT is gaining in popularity, and these researchers wanted to test its effectives and safety in this type of cancer.

This trial aimed to compare the outcomes of having a surveillance scan before surgery compared with planned neck surgery without a scan in people with advanced head and neck cancer after initial chemoradiotherapy.

What did this study do?

This UK-based randomised control trial recruited 564 people with advanced head and neck cancer; specifically, those where the tumour had spread to their lymph nodes.

Participants were randomly assigned, half and half, to have planned neck surgery 12 weeks after the last chemoradiotherapy session or to have a PET-CT scan before a decision to operate. Scans showing remaining cancer or inconclusive results were a reason to continue to surgery.

The main outcome was overall survival, with complication rates and quality of life also assessed.

The trial was not blinded meaning patients, clinicians and evaluators were aware of the treatments received. Blinding in practice would be hard to achieve and would have been unlikely to have had a major effect on the results.

What did it find?

  • Survival rates and quality of life were no different between the groups after an average (median) follow up of three years. For example, two year overall survival was 84.9% (95% confidence interval [CI], 80.7 to 89.1) in the scanned group and 81.5% (95% CI, 76.9 to 86.3) in the planned surgery group.
  • Scans resulted in far fewer operations than the planned surgery group (19.1% versus 78.4% based on initial randomisation).
  • Not all of those in the planned surgery group had their procedure: some declined and others had rapid progression of their cancer or other serious health problems. These people were included in the planned surgery group analysis.
  • Estimates of complication rates were imprecise but showed no difference between groups: 42% (95% CI, 24 to 59) in those scanned compared with 38% (95% CI, 30 to 46) in the planned group.
  • Scanning saved £1,492 per-person compared with planned surgery without a scan over a minimum of two years, adding an additional 0.08 quality-adjusted life year per person.

What does current guidance say on this issue?

PET-CT is described in 2010 NICE guidance as a potential second diagnostic phase special investigation for metastatic malignant disease of unknown primary origin.

Recent guidance published by NICE on the assessment and management of cancer of the throat recommends offering people with advanced disease a choice of radiotherapy with chemotherapy or surgery with radiotherapy, with or without chemotherapy.

There is no NICE guidance for the use of PET-CT scan to track progression of cancer before surgery.

What are the implications?

Scanning before surgery could avoid disfiguring and invasive surgery in many people after successful primary treatment.

This trial indicates this might be achieved with similar survival and complication outcomes as planned surgery over three years, with potential cost savings.

The study examined the first few years of management and longer term safety, survival or quality of life differences might not have been uncovered.


Citation and Funding

H Mehanna, W Wong, C McConkey, et al. PET-CT surveillance versus neck dissection in advanced head and neck cancer. N Engl J Med. 2016;374(15):1444-54.

Supported by academic grants from the National Institute for Health Research Health Technology Assessment Programme (06/302/129) and Cancer Research UK (C19677/A9674, for tissue sample collection).



NICE. Cancer of the upper aerodigestive tract: assessment and management in people aged 16 and over. NG36. London: National Institute for Health and Care Excellence; 2016.

NICE. Metastatic malignant disease of unknown primary origin in adults: diagnosis and management. CG104. National Institute for Health and Care Excellence; 2010.

NHS Choices. Head and neck cancer. London: Department of Health; last updated 2015.

Produced by the University of Southampton and Bazian on behalf of NIHR through the NIHR Dissemination Centre


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