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Metastatic Squamous Neck Cancer with Occult Primary Treatment (PDQ®)

Patient Version
Last Modified: 07/03/2014

General Information About Metastatic Squamous Neck Cancer with Occult Primary



Metastatic squamous neck cancer with occult primary is a disease in which squamous cell cancer spreads to lymph nodes in the neck and it is not known where the cancer first formed in the body.

Squamous cells are thin, flat cells found in tissues that form the surface of the skin and the lining of body cavities such as the mouth, hollow organs such as the uterus and blood vessels, and the lining of the respiratory (breathing) and digestive tracts. Some organs with squamous cells are the esophagus, lungs, kidneys, and uterus. Cancer can begin in squamous cells anywhere in the body and metastasize (spread) through the blood or lymph system to other parts of the body.

When squamous cell cancer spreads to lymph nodes in the neck or around the collarbone, it is called metastatic squamous neck cancer. The doctor will try to find the primary tumor (the cancer that first formed in the body), because treatment for metastatic cancer is the same as treatment for the primary tumor. For example, when lung cancer spreads to the neck, the cancer cells in the neck are lung cancer cells and they are treated the same as the cancer in the lung. Sometimes doctors cannot find where in the body the cancer first began to grow. When tests cannot find a primary tumor, it is called an occult (hidden) primary tumor. In many cases, the primary tumor is never found.

Signs and symptoms of metastatic squamous neck cancer with occult primary include a lump or pain in the neck or throat.

Check with your doctor if you have a lump or pain in your neck or throat that doesn't go away. These and other signs and symptoms may be caused by metastatic squamous neck cancer with occult primary. Other conditions may cause the same signs and symptoms.

Tests that examine the tissues of the neck, respiratory tract, and upper part of the digestive tract are used to detect (find) and diagnose metastatic squamous neck cancer and the primary tumor.

Tests will include checking for a primary tumor in the organs and tissues of the respiratory tract (part of the trachea), the upper part of the digestive tract (including the lips, mouth, tongue, nose, throat, vocal cords, and part of the esophagus), and the genitourinary system.

The following procedures may be used:

  • Physical exam and history : An exam of the body, especially the head and neck, to check general signs of health. This includes checking for signs of disease, such as lumps or anything else that seems unusual. A history of the patient’s health habits and past illnesses and treatments will also be taken.

  • Biopsy : The removal of cells or tissues so they can be viewed under a microscope by a pathologist or tested in the laboratory to check for signs of cancer.

    Three types of biopsy may be done:

    The following procedures are used to remove samples of cells or tissue:

    • Tonsillectomy: Surgery to remove both tonsils.
    • Endoscopy : A procedure to look at organs and tissues inside the body to check for abnormal areas. An endoscope is inserted through an incision (cut) in the skin or opening in the body, such as the mouth or nose. An endoscope is a thin, tube-like instrument with a light and a lens for viewing. It may also have a tool to remove abnormal tissue or lymph node samples, which are checked under a microscope for signs of disease. The nose, throat, back of the tongue, esophagus, stomach, voice box, windpipe, and large airways will be checked.

    One or more of the following laboratory tests may be done to study the tissue samples:

    • Immunohistochemistry : A test that uses antibodies to check for certain antigens in a sample of blood or bone marrow. The antibody is usually linked to a radioactive substance or a dye that causes the tissue to light up under a microscope. This type of test may be used to tell the difference between different types of cancer.
    • Light and electron microscopy : A test in which cells in a sample of tissue are viewed under regular and high-powered microscopes to look for certain changes in the cells.
    • Epstein-Barr virus (EBV) and human papillomavirus (HPV) test: A test that checks the cells in a sample of tissue for EBV and HPV DNA.

  • MRI (magnetic resonance imaging): A procedure that uses a magnet, radio waves, and a computer to make a series of detailed pictures of areas inside the body. This procedure is also called nuclear magnetic resonance imaging (NMRI).

  • CT scan (CAT scan): A procedure that makes a series of detailed pictures of areas inside the body, taken from different angles. The pictures are made by a computer linked to an x-ray machine. A dye may be injected into a vein or swallowed to help the organs or tissues show up more clearly. This procedure is also called computed tomography, computerized tomography, or computerized axial tomography.

  • PET scan (positron emission tomography scan): A procedure to find malignant tumor cells in the body. A small amount of radioactive glucose (sugar) is injected into a vein. The PET scanner rotates around the body and makes a picture of where glucose is being used in the body. Malignant tumor cells show up brighter in the picture because they are more active and take up more glucose than normal cells do. A whole body PET scan and a CT scan are done at the same time to look for where the cancer first formed. If there is any cancer, this increases the chance that it will be found.

A diagnosis of occult primary tumor is made if the primary tumor is not found during testing or treatment.

Certain factors affect prognosis (chance of recovery) and treatment options.

The prognosis (chance of recovery) and treatment options depend on the following:

  • The number and size of lymph nodes that have cancer in them.
  • Whether the cancer has responded to treatment or has recurred (come back).
  • How different from normal the cancer cells look under a microscope.
  • The patient's age and general health.

Treatment options also depend on the following:

  • Which part of the neck the cancer is in.
  • Whether certain tumor markers are found.

Stages of Metastatic Squamous Neck Cancer with Occult Primary



After metastatic squamous neck cancer with occult primary has been diagnosed, tests are done to find out if cancer cells have spread to other parts of the body.

The process used to find out if cancer has spread to other parts of the body is called staging. The results from tests and procedures used to detect and diagnose the primary tumor are also used to find out if cancer has spread to other parts of the body.

There is no standard staging system for metastatic squamous neck cancer with occult primary. The tumors are described as untreated or recurrent. Untreated metastatic squamous neck cancer with occult primary is cancer that is newly diagnosed and has not been treated, except to relieve signs and symptoms caused by the cancer.

There are three ways that cancer spreads in the body.

Cancer can spread through tissue, the lymph system, and the blood:

  • Tissue. The cancer spreads from where it began by growing into nearby areas.
  • Lymph system. The cancer spreads from where it began by getting into the lymph system. The cancer travels through the lymph vessels to other parts of the body.
  • Blood. The cancer spreads from where it began by getting into the blood. The cancer travels through the blood vessels to other parts of the body.

Recurrent Metastatic Squamous Neck Cancer with Occult Primary

Recurrent metastatic squamous neck cancer with occult primary is cancer that has recurred (come back) after it has been treated. The cancer may come back in the neck or other parts of the body.

Treatment Option Overview



There are different types of treatment for patients with metastatic squamous neck cancer with occult primary.

Different types of treatment are available for patients with metastatic squamous neck cancer with occult primary. Some treatments are standard (the currently used treatment), and some are being tested in clinical trials. A treatment clinical trial is a research study meant to help improve current treatments or obtain information on new treatments for patients with cancer. When clinical trials show that a new treatment is better than the standard treatment, the new treatment may become the standard treatment. Patients may want to think about taking part in a clinical trial. Some clinical trials are open only to patients who have not started treatment.

Two types of standard treatment are used:

Surgery

Surgery may include neck dissection. There are different types of neck dissection, based on the amount of tissue that is removed.

  • Radical neck dissection: Surgery to remove tissues in one or both sides of the neck between the jawbone and the collarbone, including the following:
    • All lymph nodes.
    • The jugular vein.
    • Muscles and nerves that are used for face, neck, and shoulder movement, speech, and swallowing.
    The patient may need physical therapy of the throat, neck, shoulder, and/or arm after radical neck dissection. Radical neck dissection may be used when cancer has spread widely in the neck.

  • Modified radical neck dissection: Surgery to remove all the lymph nodes in one or both sides of the neck without removing the neck muscles. The nerves and/or the jugular vein may be removed.

  • Partial neck dissection: Surgery to remove some of the lymph nodes in the neck. This is also called selective neck dissection.

Even if the doctor removes all the cancer that can be seen at the time of surgery, some patients may be given radiation therapy after surgery to kill any cancer cells that are left. Treatment given after surgery, to lower the risk that the cancer will come back, is called adjuvant therapy.

Radiation therapy

Radiation therapy is a cancer treatment that uses high-energy x-rays or other types of radiation to kill cancer cells or keep them from growing. There are two types of radiation therapy. External radiation therapy uses a machine outside the body to send radiation toward the cancer. Internal radiation therapy uses a radioactive substance sealed in needles, seeds, wires, or catheters that are placed directly into or near the cancer.

Intensity-modulated radiation therapy (IMRT) is a type of 3-dimensional (3-D) radiation therapy that uses a computer to make pictures of the size and shape of the tumor. Thin beams of radiation of different intensities (strengths) are aimed at the tumor from many angles. This type of radiation therapy is less likely to cause dry mouth, trouble swallowing, and damage to the skin.

Radiation therapy to the neck may change the way the thyroid gland works. The gland will be tested before treatment and at regular checkups after treatment.

New types of treatment are being tested in clinical trials.

This summary section describes treatments that are being studied in clinical trials. It may not mention every new treatment being studied. Information about clinical trials is available from the NCI Web site.

Chemotherapy

Chemotherapy is a cancer treatment that uses drugs to stop the growth of cancer cells, either by killing the cells or by stopping them from dividing. When chemotherapy is taken by mouth or injected into a vein or muscle, the drugs enter the bloodstream and can reach cancer cells throughout the body (systemic chemotherapy). When chemotherapy is placed directly into the cerebrospinal fluid, an organ, or a body cavity such as the abdomen, the drugs mainly affect cancer cells in those areas (regional chemotherapy).

Hyperfractionated radiation therapy

Hyperfractionated radiation therapy is radiation treatment in which the total dose of radiation is divided into small doses and the treatments are given more than once a day.

Patients may want to think about taking part in a clinical trial.

For some patients, taking part in a clinical trial may be the best treatment choice. Clinical trials are part of the cancer research process. Clinical trials are done to find out if new cancer treatments are safe and effective or better than the standard treatment.

Many of today's standard treatments for cancer are based on earlier clinical trials. Patients who take part in a clinical trial may receive the standard treatment or be among the first to receive a new treatment.

Patients who take part in clinical trials also help improve the way cancer will be treated in the future. Even when clinical trials do not lead to effective new treatments, they often answer important questions and help move research forward.

Patients can enter clinical trials before, during, or after starting their cancer treatment.

Some clinical trials only include patients who have not yet received treatment. Other trials test treatments for patients whose cancer has not gotten better. There are also clinical trials that test new ways to stop cancer from recurring (coming back) or reduce the side effects of cancer treatment.

Clinical trials are taking place in many parts of the country. See the Treatment Options section that follows for links to current treatment clinical trials. These have been retrieved from NCI's listing of clinical trials.

Follow-up tests may be needed.

Some of the tests that were done to diagnose the cancer or to find out the stage of the cancer may be repeated. Some tests will be repeated in order to see how well the treatment is working. Decisions about whether to continue, change, or stop treatment may be based on the results of these tests. This is sometimes called re-staging.

Some of the tests will continue to be done from time to time after treatment has ended. The results of these tests can show if your condition has changed or if the cancer has recurred (come back). These tests are sometimes called follow-up tests or check-ups.

Treatment Options for Metastatic Squamous Neck Cancer with Occult Primary



Untreated Metastatic Squamous Neck Cancer with Occult Primary

Treatment of untreated metastatic squamous neck cancer with occult primary may include the following:

Check for U.S. clinical trials from NCI's list of cancer clinical trials that are now accepting patients with untreated metastatic squamous neck cancer with occult primary. For more specific results, refine the search by using other search features, such as the location of the trial, the type of treatment, or the name of the drug. Talk with your doctor about clinical trials that may be right for you. General information about clinical trials is available from the NCI Web site.

Recurrent Metastatic Squamous Neck Cancer with Occult Primary

Treatment of recurrent metastatic squamous neck cancer with occult primary is usually within a clinical trial.

Check for U.S. clinical trials from NCI's list of cancer clinical trials that are now accepting patients with recurrent metastatic squamous neck cancer with occult primary. For more specific results, refine the search by using other search features, such as the location of the trial, the type of treatment, or the name of the drug. Talk with your doctor about clinical trials that may be right for you. General information about clinical trials is available from the NCI Web site.

Changes to This Summary (07/03/2014)

The PDQ cancer information summaries are reviewed regularly and updated as new information becomes available. This section describes the latest changes made to this summary as of the date above.

Editorial changes were made to this summary.

About This PDQ Summary



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This PDQ cancer information summary has current information about the treatment of metastatic squamous neck cancer with occult primary. It is meant to inform and help patients, families, and caregivers. It does not give formal guidelines or recommendations for making decisions about health care.

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Clinical Trial Information

A clinical trial is a study to answer a scientific question, such as whether one treatment is better than another. Trials are based on past studies and what has been learned in the laboratory. Each trial answers certain scientific questions in order to find new and better ways to help cancer patients. During treatment clinical trials, information is collected about the effects of a new treatment and how well it works. If a clinical trial shows that a new treatment is better than one currently being used, the new treatment may become "standard." Patients may want to think about taking part in a clinical trial. Some clinical trials are open only to patients who have not started treatment.

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