SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — Patients with oropharyngeal cancer reported significant voice and speech impairment for up to 2 years after chemoradiation therapy, but most of their doctors saw no evidence of it, data from a prospective study showed.
Two years after treatment, a fourth of patients said their voice and speech remained below baseline levels, whereas none of their clinicians noted any impairment. At no time did as many as 10% of clinicians report patients with speech and voice issues, whereas the proportion of patients reporting problems ranged as high as 56%.
The likelihood of patient-reported difficulties with oral communication increased with the radiation dose to the glottic larynx, reported Jeffrey M. Vainshtein, MD, and colleagues at the Multidisciplinary Head and Neck Cancer Symposium.
“Our findings highlight the critical role of patient-reported outcomes in identifying areas of improvement of our current therapies, which may ultimately translate into improvements in quality of life for our patients,” Vainshtein, of the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, said during a press briefing.
Dysphagia and xerostomia are recognized adverse effects of chemoradiation for head and neck cancer and have been studied extensively in recent years. In contrast, a paucity of information exists relative to the effects of chemoradiation on voice and speech quality, Vainshtein said.
To examine the issue, investigators assessed voice and speech outcomes in 93 patients who underwent chemoradiation for oropharyngeal cancer, using intensity-modulated radiation therapy (IMRT). At baseline, and then every 3 to 6 months after finishing treatment, patients completed two validated questionnaires: Head and Neck Quality of Life (HNQOL) and University of Washington Quality of Life (UWQOL).
At the same intervals, the patients’ physicians reported their assessments in accordance with the Common Terminology Criteria for Adverse Events.
All of the patients had locally advanced stage III/IV oropharyngeal cancer and received treatment in two clinical trials of organ-sparing IMRT. Radiation therapy protocols were designed to minimize the radiation dose to the pharyngeal constrictors, salivary glands, oral cavity, glottic larynx, supraglottic larynx, and esophagus.
Vainshtein and colleagues analyzed patient questionnaires to identify factors associated with voice and speech impairment, in addition to the frequency of impairment.
By the HNQOL communication domain and speech impairment domain of the UWQOL, radiotherapy-induced speech impairment reached a maximum in the first month after treatment. Impairment then decreased in subsequent assessments, stabilizing at 12 to 18 months.
The proportion of patients reporting post-treatment speech and voice impairment followed a time pattern consistent with speech impairment reflected in answers to the questionnaires. By the HNQOL, 68% of patients said their voice and speech quality were impaired versus baseline, decreasing to 56% at 3 months, 46% at 6 months, 33% at 12 months, 31% at 18 months, and 24% at 24 months.
By the UWQOL, the proportion of patients reporting worsening of voice and speech quality after treatment was 41%, 26%, 29%, 28%, 15%, and 22% at the assessments from 1 to 24 months after finishing therapy.
In contrast, few physicians included voice and speech impairment in their adverse event reports. Vainshtein said 7% of physicians reported grade 1 toxicity with respect to worsening of voice and speech at 3 months, 5% at 6 months, and 0% thereafter.
Comparing treatment characteristics and patient-reported voice quality worsening, investigators found an association between radiation dose to the larynx and patient-reported impairment at 6 and 12 months. Reported impairment at 6 months increased from 25% with a cumulative radiation dose of <20 Gy to 59% at >30-40 Gy, 50% at 40-50 Gy, and 64% with laryngeal doses >50 Gy (P=0.02).
A similar pattern emerged from the analysis of 12-month outcomes, as the proportion of patients reporting worsening of voice quality from baseline increased from 10% for laryngeal radiation doses <20 Gy to 63% of patients for cumulative doses >50 Gy (P=0.011).
“We observed similar findings for patient-reported voice quality worsening and speech impairment,” Vainshtein said. “The results were independent of other patient and treatment factors.”
Press briefing moderator Mitchell Machtay, MD, said he found the study eye opening.
“If you looked at radiation dose to larynx, not the area where the tumor was, I was struck by how doses of 20 to 30 Gy, which we don’t normally consider as very toxic high doses that can damage the voicebox, still caused a fair amount of damage,” said Machtay, of University Hospitals Case Medical Center in Cleveland.
The magnitude of disconnect between patient and physician assessments was one of the more surprising findings in the study.
“I don’t think it’s unique to head and neck cancer. I don’t think it’s unique to our study. I don’t think it’s unique to medicine,” Vainshtein said. “I think physicians tend to underestimate the effect of their treatment — whatever it is — on our patients.”
Some adverse effects can be subtle and do not become apparent during conversations with physicians, he continued. When the patients express their sentiments in a more formal manner, such as a questionnaire, the effects do emerge.
Some of the disconnect reflects differences in patients’ approaches to their illness and adverse effects of treatment, said Wade Thorstad, MD, of Washington University in St. Louis.
“There’s a group of patients, when you’re interviewing them about their symptoms, will tell it like it is and really explain things well,” said Thorstad, another participant in the press briefing. “There’s another group that is stoic, and they really underplay their issues before [their physician]. However, when they are filling out a questionnaire about their feelings about quality of life, I think you get a more honest assessment.”
* This news story was resourced by the Oral Cancer Foundation, and vetted for appropriateness and accuracy.