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Symptom burden among head and neck cancer patients in the first year after diagnosis: association with primary treatment modality


Purpose — Head and neck cancer (HNC) and its treatment affects quality of life, with significant symptom burden. The main objectives of this study were to examine symptom trajectories of HNC patients by treatment and to identify factors associated with high ESAS scores.

Methods and Materials — We conducted a retrospective cohort study in patients diagnosed with HNC in Ontario, Canada from 2007 to 2015 using linked health administrative databases. The primary outcome was a monthly patient self-reported moderate-to-severe (≥4) symptom score in the year following diagnosis. Multivariable Modified Poisson regression analyses with robust variance were used to investigate factors associated with moderate-to-severe scores.

Results — Of 13,827 HNC patients identified, 4793 had ≥1 ESAS assessment within 12 months of cancer diagnosis. Overall, 60% (n = 2708) and 65% (n = 2903) of patients reported moderate-to-severe pain and poor appetite, respectively. The proportion of patients reporting a score ≥4 increased significantly during treatment and was most pronounced for those who received chemoradiation (CRT). On multivariable analysis, patients who were female (Relative Risk (RR) 1.15, 95% CI 1.08–1.23, received CRT, had a higher comorbidity burden (RR 1.31, 1.23–1.39), and had a diagnosis of oropharyngeal (1.10, 1.02–1.19), or oral cavity cancer (1.31, 1.19–1.45), were at an increased risk of reporting severe pain scores (p < 0.01 for all).

Conclusion — The majority of HNC patients report high pain scores, with symptom burden highest during the treatment phase, and especially for patients who received radiation or chemoradiation. This large study highlights the need for proactive symptom management during the HNC patients' cancer journey.



Allen-Ayodabo CO, Eskander A, Davis LE, Zhao H, Mahar AL, Karam I, Singh S, Gupta V, Bubis LD, Moody L, Barbera L, Coburn NG. Oral Oncol. 2019; 99:104434. Epub 2019 Oct 17.

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