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Hematol Oncol Clin North Am. 1991 Aug;5(4):667-86.

Chemotherapy for recurrent and metastatic head and neck cancer.

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Department of Medicine, Stanford University Medical Center, California.


At the present time, the treatment of recurrent and metastatic head and neck squamous and salivary gland cancers with chemotherapy is palliative. Pain relief, improvement in functional parameters, and improved survival are important goals. Although survival benefits are small, palliation can be significant. For squamous cancers, the median duration of response to chemotherapy is 2 to 4 months, and overall survival is about 6 months. Responses can be achieved with acceptable toxicity for good palliation in approximately 30% of patients treated with the standard regimens. Although more intensive chemotherapy regimens often result in higher response rates in pilot trials, they do not offer significant gains in effectiveness or survival. In salivary gland malignancies, results are substantially better, but this may only reflect the different natural history of this heterogeneous group of tumors. A small number of patients will have excellent and very durable responses to chemotherapy. Unfortunately, at this time we are unable to select these patients or determine which regimen will produce this desired result. The optimal use of currently available drugs is in the process of refinement. The timing of palliative chemotherapy represents a major challenge to oncologists and patients. Chemotherapy may in the future have a role in the cure of patients with recurrent disease, but innovative therapy, combined modality approaches, and new drug development will all need to be investigated. We look forward toward a new understanding of tumor biology and the development of agents that may substantially improve the control of these tumors.

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