Conference Coverage

Teamwork key to head and neck cancer management




PARIS – Successful head and neck cancer management can be achieved only if a multidisciplinary approach is taken, experts emphasized at a recent international conference on anticancer treatment.

Because of its very location and complex anatomy, squamous cell cancer of the head and neck (SCCHN) is a difficult tumor to treat, Dr. Jean-Pierre Lefebvre of Centre Oscar Lambret in Lille, France, explained. Two-thirds of tumors are diagnosed at a late stage and often require a combination of therapeutic approaches and thus “combined toxicities.” Patients also frequently have comorbid illnesses that can affect their compliance and tolerance to treatments.

“There is only one solution: a multidisciplinary approach at any time of the management,” Dr. Lefebvre said.

The multidisciplinary approach requires a tight-knit team of imaging specialists; biologists and pathologists; anesthesiologists and surgeons; medical and radiation oncologists; nurses, general practitioners, and other support professions, such as dentists, dietitians, psychologists, speech and physical therapy specialists; and of course, the patients themselves.

Dr. Lefebvre noted that it was vital to provide patients with good information about their disease and its treatment, from the time of diagnosis to explain the various management decisions made by the multidisciplinary team and likely outcomes of the recommended interventions.

The primary goals of treatment are to control disease above the clavicles and to ensure survival, Dr. Lefebvre observed. Other treatment goals include preserving organ function, controlling symptoms, and creating a minimal impact on a patient’s quality of life by providing treatments that offer minimal long-term toxicity, good tolerability, and perhaps most important, good patient satisfaction.

Selecting treatment can be challenging and cannot be done without a multidisciplinary decision. The two main pathways are a surgery-based or radiotherapy-based treatment, but within each there are multiple options and combinations that need careful consideration on a case-by-case basis.

Dr. Jan B. Vermorken
Dr. Jan B. Vermorken

“It’s not a cookbook decision,” agreed Dr. Jan B. Vermorken, emeritus professor of oncology at Antwerp University Hospital, Belgium, who discussed the systemic treatment of head and neck cancer in a separate lecture. He agreed that head and neck cancer treatment is a multidisciplinary challenge that needs to balance the efficacy and tolerability of treatment on an individual basis, and always while considering the patient’s preferences.

“Patients can be very well informed,” Dr. Vermorken noted and suggested that clinicians need to be prepared to help patients understand the information that they find themselves in order to be able to counter any misinformation they might have found.

“There is no treatment without side effects,” Dr. Vermorken stressed. “When there are no side effects, [the treatment] doesn’t work. So you have to warn patients there are always side effects of the treatment they will be given.”

In addition to the importance of the multidisciplinary team in the management of head and neck cancer, understanding the biology of the disease and using systemic treatment are important for treatment, he said. Recent advances in this area include the recognition of the human papillomavirus as a risk factor for and strong predictor of survival in oropharyngeal cancer, and the role of epidermal growth factor receptor to enable targeting with anti-EGFR drugs, such as cetuximab (Erbitux). Systemic treatment for locally advanced disease includes concurrent chemoradiotherapy (CCRT), bioradiotherapy (BRT) with cetuximab and sequential chemotherapy (induction chemotherapy followed by CCRT or BRT).

In most cases of locally advanced SCCHN, the recommended chemotherapy of choice is high-dose cisplatin, given every 3 weeks. Although alternatives to this have been proposed – such as lowering the dose of cisplatin or using carboplatin or cetuximab instead – they have been insufficiently studied and many questions remain unanswered at the moment.

As for the treatment of recurrent or metastatic SCCHN, if it is resectable, then this would be followed by radiotherapy or CCRT. In patients deemed fit enough to handle the regimen, a combination of a platinum agent, 5-fluorouracil (5-FU) and cetuximab) is a new standard first-line regimen, although the role of maintenance cetuximab is unclear.

Better chemotherapy partners for cetuximab or alternatives for anti-EGFR–targeting agents are under investigation. This includes using docetaxel (Taxotere) instead of 5-FU with cetuximab or using lapatinib (Tykerb), afatinib (Gilotrif) or dacomitinib to block multiple human epidermal growth factor receptors or a variety of monoclonal antibodies to try to overcome resistance to anti-EGFR drugs.

Reactivation of immune surveillance by blocking the PD-1 pathway with drugs such as nivolumab (Opdivo) and pembrolizumab (Keytruda) seems to be a promising approach for treating head and neck cancer and is under investigation in other tumors, including non–small cell lung cancer, triple-negative breast cancer, and melanoma, Dr. Vermorken said.Dr. Lefebvre has acted as a consultant to Merck Serono and Sanofi. Dr. Vermorken has participated in advisory boards of AstraZeneca; Boehringer Ingelheim; Debiopharm; Genentech; Merck Serono; Merck, Sharp & Dohme; Oncolytics Biotech; Pierre Fabre; and Vaccinogen; and received lecturer fees from Merck Serono.

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