Patients with head and neck cancer who are treated with an advanced form of radiation therapy may experience fewer side effects and be less likely to die from their disease than patients who receive standard radiation therapy. This study established intensity-modulated radiation therapy (IMRT) as both a safe and beneficial treatment for patients with head and neck cancer.

Patients with head and neck cancer often receive radiation treatments, which can cause significant side effects including dry mouth, difficulty swallowing, and bone destruction. Research has shown that IMRT, an advanced radiation technique that is designed to treat tumors while sparing normal tissues, can cause less dry mouth and dental problems than traditional radiation; however, studies have not determined how IMRT impacts patients’ survival.

To investigate, Beth Beadle, MD, PhD, of the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, and her colleagues analyzed a large database of 3,172 patients treated for head and neck cancer at various clinics across the United States between 1999 and 2007. After a midpoint follow-up time of 40 months, 84.1% of patients treated with IMRT had not died from cancer, compared with 66% of patients treated with traditional radiation. Analyzing each anatomic subsite separately, all respective subgroups of patients treated with IMRT had better survival than those treated with traditional radiation.

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“This analysis revealed that patients treated with IMRT have less cancer-related deaths than those treated with traditional techniques. So, not only do they have fewer side effects, but they also have fewer life-threatening recurrences,” said Beadle. The study was published in Cancer (2014; doi:10.1002/cncr.28372).

The research has important relevance to national discussions of health care delivery and health care policy because IMRT is more expensive than traditional radiation therapy. “An investment in IMRT may be cost-effective because it is better at both preventing side effects and cancer recurrence,” Beadle explained. More research is needed, however, to verify the findings of this retrospective study.