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Cancer. 2015 Apr 15;121(8):1303-11. doi: 10.1002/cncr.29207. Epub 2014 Dec 23.

Aspiration pneumonia after concurrent chemoradiotherapy for head and neck cancer.

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Medical Informatics Center, Peking University, Beijing, China.



Aspiration pneumonia represents an under-reported complication of chemoradiotherapy in patient with head and neck cancer. The objective of the current study was to evaluate the incidence, risk factors, and mortality of aspiration pneumonia in a large cohort of patients with head and neck cancer who received concurrent chemoradiotherapy.


Patients who had head and neck cancer diagnosed between 2000 and 2009 were identified from the Surveillance, Epidemiology, and End Results-Medicare database. Aspiration pneumonia was identified from Medicare billing claims. The cumulative incidence, risk factors, and survival after aspiration pneumonia were estimated and compared with a noncancer population.


Of 3513 patients with head and neck cancer, 801 developed aspiration pneumonia at a median of 5 months after initiating treatment. The 1-year and 5-year cumulative incidence of aspiration pneumonia was 15.8% and 23.8%, respectively, for patients with head and neck cancer and 3.6% and 8.7%, respectively, for noncancer controls. Among the patients with cancer, multivariate analysis identified independent risk factors (P < .05) for aspiration pneumonia, including hypopharyngeal and nasopharyngeal tumors, male gender, older age, increased comorbidity, no surgery before radiation, and care received at a teaching hospital. Among the patients with cancer who experienced aspiration pneumonia, 674 (84%) were hospitalized; and, of these, 301 (45%) were admitted to an intensive care unit. The 30-day mortality rate after hospitalization for aspiration pneumonia was 32.5%. Aspiration pneumonia was associated with a 42% increased risk of death (hazard ratio, 1.42; P < .001) after controlling for confounders.


The current results indicated that nearly 25% of elderly patients will develop aspiration pneumonia within 5 years after receiving chemoradiotherapy for head and neck cancer. A better understanding of mitigating factors will help identify patients who are at risk for this potentially lethal complication.


End Results Program; Epidemiology; Medicare; Surveillance; aspiration pneumonia; chemoradiotherapy; head and neck neoplasms

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