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Surg Oncol Clin N Am. 2003 Apr;12(2):379-417.

Sarcomas of the head and neck.

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  • 1Department of Head and Neck Surgery, University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center, 1515 Holcombe Boulevard, Unit 441, Houston, TX 77030-4009, USA.


With the exception of pediatric RMS, soft tissue sarcomas only rarely arise in the head and neck region. Soft tissue sarcomas include a diverse array of histologic types because of the variety of mesenchymal tissues from which they originate. The combination of infrequent occurrence, varied pathologic features, and the many potential sites of presentation makes these tumors a challenge for the head and neck oncologist and underscore the need for review by a pathologist experienced with soft tissue tumors. Classification schemes that group sarcomas according to grade have been helpful in providing prognostic information. Although local control of the primary tumor is critical to successful treatment of both high- and low-grade lesions, the high rate of distant metastases in high-grade tumors supports the role of combined modality therapy. Compared with other types of head and neck neoplasms, such as squamous cell carcinoma, soft tissue sarcomas have low rates of regional metastases. Surgery generally has been recommended as the primary method of treatment for achieving local control, except in those high-grade tumors arising in sites not amenable to resection. Exceptions to this principle include RMSs of the orbit, paranasal sinuses, and masticator space in children; these are usually treated with radiotherapy and combined multiagent chemotherapy, thereby avoiding the functional and cosmetic impact of surgery. Also, extensive angiosarcomas of the scalp should be treated with multimodality therapy combining surgery and wide-field radiation therapy in an attempt to achieve local control. Adjuvant radiotherapy is generally recommended for high-grade sarcomas, large tumors, close or positive surgical margins, and certain histologic variants. Systemic chemotherapy is recommended for those tumors with a significant risk of distant metastases. Increasingly, neoadjuvant chemotherapy is being used to determine responsiveness to chemotherapy, which can help physicians select patients who may benefit from systemic postoperative therapy. Traditional predictors of treatment failure for soft tissue sarcomas include larger tumor size, high-grade histology, and positive surgical margins. The advent of more advanced reconstructive techniques, including free tissue transfer, has made more aggressive surgical resection of these tumors possible. Nevertheless, a considerable number of ancillary support staff are critical to the patient's postoperative rehabilitation and eventual return to a satisfactory level of function and quality of life. In the future, the discovery of the molecular pathogenesis of specific tumor types, such as the cytogenetic findings in synovial sarcoma, will improve physicians' prognostic abilities and selection of patients who are most likely to benefit from emerging adjuvant therapies.

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