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Prognostic factors for head and neck cancer of unknown primary including the impact of human papilloma virus infection

Journal article
Authors Lars Axelsson
Jan Nyman
Hedda Haugen
M. Bove
L. Johansson
Shahin De Lara
Anikó Kovács
Eva Hammerlid
Published in Journal of Otolaryngology-Head & Neck Surgery
Volume 46
ISSN 1916-0216
Publication year 2017
Published at Institute of Clinical Sciences, Department of Otorhinolaryngology
Language en
Keywords Head and neck cancer, Unknown primary, Human papilloma virus, p16, Prognostic factors, Treatment, squamous-cell carcinoma, lymph-node metastases, primary site, primary, tumor, management, expression, patterns, outcomes, radiotherapy, immunity, Otorhinolaryngology
Subject categories Cancer and Oncology, Otorhinolaryngology


Background: Head and neck cancer of unknown primary (HNCUP) is rare and prospective studies are lacking. The impact of different prognostic factors such as age and N stage is not completely known, the optimal treatment is not yet established, and the reported survival rates vary. In the last decade, human papilloma virus (HPV) has been identified as a common cause of and important prognostic factor in oropharyngeal cancer, and there is now growing interest in the importance of HPV for HNCUP. The aim of the present study on curatively treated HNCUP was to investigate the prognostic importance of different factors, including HPV status, treatment, and overall survival. Methods: A search for HNCUP was performed in the Swedish Cancer Registry, Western health district, between the years 1992-2009. The medical records were reviewed, and only patients with squamous cell carcinoma or undifferentiated carcinoma treated with curative intent were included. The tumor specimens were retrospectively analyzed for HPV with p16 immunostaining. Results: Sixty- eight patients were included. The mean age was 59 years. The majority were males, and had N2 tumors. Sixty-nine percent of the tumors were HPV positive using p16 staining. Patients who were older than 70 years, patients with N3-stage tumors, and patients with tumors that were p16 negative had a significantly worse prognosis. The overall 5-year survival rate for patients with p16-positive tumors was 88% vs 61% for p16- negative tumors. Treatment with neck dissection and postoperative radiation or (chemo) radiation had 81 and 88% 5- year survival rates, respectively. The overall and disease- free 5-year survival rates for all patients in the study were 82 and 74%. Conclusions: Curatively treated HNCUP had good survival. HPV infection was common. Independent prognostic factors for survival were age over 70 years, HPV status and N3 stage. We recommend that HPV analysis should be performed routinely for HNCUP. Treatment with neck dissection and postoperative radiation or (chemo) radiation showed similar survival rates.

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