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In Brief: Intensity-Modulated Radiation Therapy Improves Survival in Head and Neck Cancer Patients

Compared with conventional radiation therapy, intensity-modulated radiation therapy (IMRT) is associated with a significantly higher cause-specific survival rate in patients with head and neck cancers, according to a recent study. The study is the first to suggest that IMRT improves survival outcomes in head and neck cancer patients.

“Previous studies indicated that patients treated with IMRT did better when it came to treatment-related side effects; however, these studies were not designed to examine survival,” said Beth Beadle, M.D., Ph.D., an assistant professor in the Department of Radiation Oncology at The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center and the first author of the study’s report. “IMRT is intended to spare normal tissues but still deliver radiation to the tumor, so previous models assumed survival was equivalent to survival with conventional radiation therapy.”

Using the Surveillance, Epidemiology, and End Results–Medicare database, Dr. Beadle and her colleagues identified 3,172 patients who received either conventional radiation therapy (2,116 patients) or IMRT (1,056 patients) for head and neck cancer of any subtype between 1999 and 2007.

The researchers found that at a median follow-up of 40 months, the cause-specific survival rate of the patients who received IMRT (84%) was significantly higher than that of the patients who received conventional radiation therapy (66%; P < .001). The difference remained even after adjustment to account for sources of potential bias.

“From a scientific perspective, the findings support the use of IMRT and suggest we can provide excellent care while optimizing cancer outcomes and reducing toxicities,” Dr. Beadle said. “From the perspective of health care financing and resource allocation, IMRT is more expensive than conventional radiation therapy, but the data suggest it’s worth it.”

The study was reported in the journal Cancer in March.

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OncoLog, June 2014, Volume 59, Issue 6

© 2015 The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center