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Curr Treat Options Oncol. 2012 Mar;13(1):35-46. doi: 10.1007/s11864-011-0176-y.

Current treatment options for metastatic head and neck cancer.

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Division of Medical Oncology, Mayo Clinic, Rochester, MN 55905, USA.


Head and neck squamous cell carcinoma is now the 8th most common cancer affecting men in the United States largely due to a rising epidemic of oropharynx cancer (tonsil and tongue base) associated with the human papillomavirus (HPV). The median overall survival for recurrent or metastatic head and neck cancer (R/M HNSCC) remains less than 1 year despite modern chemotherapy and targeted agents. Palliative chemotherapy and the epidermal growth factor receptor inhibitor, cetuximab, constitute the backbone of treatment for patients with R/M HNSCC. Platinum doublets studied in phase III trials include cisplatin/5-FU, cisplatin/paclitaxel, and cisplatin/pemetrexed. Platinum chemotherapy in combination with 5-fluorouracil and cetuximab has resulted in the longest median overall survival. Combination platinum regimens increase response rates and toxicity but not survival and should be reserved for patients who are symptomatic from their disease for whom the benefit of a partial response may be worth the cost of increased treatment-related side effects. For many patients who are asymptomatic with a low disease burden, single agent regimens are appropriate to balance treatment with side effects. Drugs commonly used as single agents in the treatment of R/M HNSCC include docetaxel, paclitaxel, cetuximab, capecitabine, pemetrexed, and methotrexate. Best supportive care alone is often appropriate for poor performance status patients. Palliative radiation therapy is beneficial for treating symptomatic metastatic sites. Aggressive symptom management is imperative for all patients and often should include referral to experts in palliative care and pain management. New therapies currently under investigation include mTOR inhibitors, anti-angiogenic agents, and IGF1R inhibitors. Given the poor prognosis for most patients with R/M HNSCC, enrollment in clinical trials investigating novel approaches to therapy should be encouraged.

[Indexed for MEDLINE]

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