Swing of the Surgical Pendulum: A Return to Surgery for Treatment of Head and Neck Cancer in the 21st Century?

Authors: Holsinger FC, Weber RS

First Published: May 2007


Treatment for head and neck cancer has evolved significantly during the past 100 years. Beginning with Bilroth’s total laryngectomy on New Year’s Day in 1873, “radical” surgery remained the only accepted treatment for head and neck cancer when optimal local and regional control was the goal. Bigger was still better when it came to managing the primary tumor and the neck. The “commando” procedure and radical neck dissection were the hallmarks of this first generation of treatments of head-and-neck cancer. With the advent of microvascular reconstructive techniques, larger and more comprehensive resections could be performed. Despite these large resections and their “mutilating” sequelae, overall survival did not improve. Even for intermediate-stage disease in head-and-neck cancer, the 5-year survival rate did not improve >50%. Many concluded that more than the scalpel was needed for optimal local and regional control, especially for intermediate- and advanced-stage disease. Most important, the multidisciplinary teams must identify and correlate biomarkers in the tumor and host that predict for a response to therapy and for optimal functional recovery. As the pendulum swings back, a scientific approach using tissue biomarkers for the response to treatment in the setting of multidisciplinary trials must emerge as the new paradigm. In the postgenomic era, treatment decisions should be made based on functional and oncologic parameters-not just to avoid perceived morbidity.