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Recurrent head and neck cancer: United Kingdom National Multidisciplinary Guidelines

  • H Mehanna (a1), A Kong (a2) and SK Ahmed (a3)


This is the official guideline endorsed by the specialty associations involved in the care of head and neck cancer patients in the UK. Recurrent cancers present some of the most challenging management issues in head and neck surgical and oncological practice. This is rendered even more complex by the poor evidence base to support management options, the substantial implications that treatments can have on the function and quality of life, and the difficult decision-making considerations for supportive care alone. This paper provides consensus recommendations on the management of recurrent head and neck cancer.


• Consider baseline and serial scanning with computed tomography and/or magnetic resonance (CT and/or MR) to detect recurrence in high-risk patients. (R)

• Patients with head and neck cancer recurrence being considered for active curative treatment should undergo assessment by positron emission tomography combined with computed tomography (PET–CT) scan. (R)

• Patients with recurrence should be assessed systematically by a team experienced in the range of management options available for recurrence including surgical salvage, re-irradiation, chemotherapy and palliative care. (R)

• Management of patients with laryngeal recurrence should include input from surgeons with experience in transoral surgery and partial laryngectomy for recurrence. (G)

• Expertise in transoral surgery and partial laryngectomy for recurrence should be concentrated to a few surgeons within each multidisciplinary teams. (G)

• Transoral or open partial laryngectomy should be offered as definitive treatment modality for highly-selected patients with recurrent laryngeal cancer. (R)

• Patients with OPC recurrence should have p16 human papilloma virus status assessed. (R)

• Patients with OPC recurrence should be considered for salvage surgical treatment by an experienced team, with reconstructive expertise input. (G)

• Transoral surgery appears to be an effective alternative to open surgery for the management of OPC recurrence in carefully selected patients. (R)

• Consider elective selective neck dissections in patients with recurrent primaries with N0 necks, especially in advanced cases. (R)

• Selective neck dissection (with preservation of nodal levels, especially level V, that are not involved by disease) in patients with nodal (N+) recurrence appears to be as effective as modified or radical neck dissections. (R)

• Use salivary bypass tubes following salvage laryngectomy. (R)

• Use interposition muscle-only pectoralis major or free flap for suture line reinforcement if performing primary closure following salvage laryngectomy. (R)

• Use inlaid pedicled or free flap to close wound if there is tension at the anastomosis following laryngectomy. (R)

• Perform secondary puncture in post chemoradiotherapy laryngectomy patients. (R)

• Triple therapy with platinum, cetuximab and 5-fluorouracil (5-FU) appears to provide the best outcomes for the management of patients with recurrence who have a good performance status and are fit to receive it. If not fit, then combinations of platinum and cetuximab or platinum and 5-FU may be considered. (R)

• Patients with non-resectable recurrent disease should be offered the opportunity to participate in phases I–III clinical trials of new therapeutic agents. (R)

• Chemo re-irradiation appears to improve locoregional control, and may have some benefit for overall survival, at the risk of considerable acute and late toxicity. Benefit must be weighed carefully against risks, and patients must be counselled appropriately. (R)

• Target volumes should be kept tight and elective nodal irradiation should be avoided. (R)

• Best supportive care should be offered routinely as part of the management package of all patients with recurrent cancer even in the case of those who are being treated curatively. (R)

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This is an Open Access article, distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution licence (, which permits unrestricted re-use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited.

Corresponding author

Address for correspondence: Prof Hisham Mehanna, Institute of Head and Neck Studies and Education, College of Medical and Dental Sciences, University of Birmingham, Edgbaston, Birmingham, UK E-mail:


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