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Identification of distant metastases with PET-CT in patients with suspected recurrent head and neck cancer




To investigate the utility of positron-emission tomography/computed tomography (PET-CT) in identifying distant metastatic disease in patients with suspected recurrent head and neck squamous cell cancer (HNSCC).

Study Design:

Retrospective analysis.


Retrospective analysis of 64 consecutive patients with suspected recurrent HNSCC following definitive treatment who underwent PET-CT imaging were eligible for inclusion. Patients with previous known distant metastatic disease were excluded.


The majority of patients (81%) had TNM stage III or IV disease. PET-CT was suspicious for pulmonary malignancy in 14 patients (22%) and indeterminate in 6 patients (9%). Pulmonary metastases or a new lung primary were present in 10 patients (16%): 7 of 14 patients with positive PET-CT scans (50%) and 3 of 50 patients with negative or indeterminate PET-CT scans (6%). Including nonpulmonary sites, the overall incidence of distant disease was 23% (15/64) with 20% (13/64) unsuspected prior to PET-CT. The sensitivity and specificity of PET-CT in predicting distant malignancy was 86% and 84%, respectively, with a positive predictive value of 60% and a negative predictive value of 95%. There was a significant correlation between standardized uptake value (SUV) on PET-CT and positive histology, with a mean SUV of 8.5 (range, 4.7–16.2) in patients with distant metastases compared with a mean SUV of 2.9 (range, 1.9–4.2) in patients with benign pathology (r = 0.87, P < .0001).


A significant number of patients with recurrent HNSCC have distant metastases at the time of recurrence. These data suggest that PET-CT improves detection of metastatic disease in the high-risk patient and should be performed as part of the routine evaluation of patients with suspected recurrence prior to salvage surgery. Laryngoscope, 2009