Systemic Therapy for Metastatic or Recurrent Squamous Cell Carcinoma of the Head and Neck

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This article summarizes the systemic treatment options for patients with recurrent and/or metastatic squamous cell carcinoma of the head and neck, with an emphasis on recommendations based on phase II and III comparison trials of commercially available agents. Many single-agent and combination regimens have activity against these cancers, but improvement in overall survival remains a challenge, and median survivals in this population with best available therapy remain less than 1 year. The major recent advancement has been the introduction of epidermal growth factor receptor inhibitors, with mixed success. Although single-agent treatment with methotrexate, paclitaxel, docetaxel, or 5-fluorouracil remains one standard for many patients, the use of cisplatin- or carboplatin-based multidrug regimens that include cetuximab has become more popular, primarily based on one randomized study demonstrating a modest survival improvement of approximately 3 months associated with the addition of cetuximab. The burdensome adverse event profile of multidrug regimens makes appropriate patient selection for such aggressive treatment challenging, and consideration should include factors such as need for palliation, performance status of the patients, history of prior treatment, convenience, and cost. Genetically targeted and immunologically mediated treatments are promising but remain experimental. Given the worrisome prognosis for these patients, innovative clinical trials are a good option for many patients and deserve support.

Correspondence: A. Dimitrios Colevas, MD, Sanford Cancer Institute 875 Blake Wilbur Drive, Stanford, CA 94305. E-mail: colevas@stanford.edu
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