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Do Socioeconomic Factors Play a Role in Outcomes for HPV-Positive Head and Neck Cancer?


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Survival outcomes for patients with human papillomavirus (HPV)-positive squamous cell carcinoma of the head and neck have made significant gains in recent years, but new research published by Pike et al in JNCCN—Journal of the National Comprehensive Cancer Network has found some groups have not been seeing the same survival improvements. A team of researchers conducted the largest population-based analysis to date on the socioeconomic factors that affect outcomes in this cancer type and found significant racial and socioeconomic disparities in survival outcomes for the disease.

“When we examined outcomes by race and insurance status, adjusting for all clinical factors, those patients who were nonwhite or uninsured or poorly insured had reduced cancer-specific survival compared to their white and well-insured peers,” said first study author Luke R.G. Pike, MD, DPhil, of the Department of Radiation Oncology at Massachusetts General Hospital. “It’s unsettling that black and Hispanic men and women with HPV-positive oropharyngeal carcinoma—a disease we now recognize to be curable in many patients with even very advanced disease—appear to do disproportionately [worse] as compared to their white peers. We also speculate that patients with insufficient insurance were unable to access high-quality radiotherapy, surgery, and chemotherapy, which is crucial to the successful treatment of locally advanced HPV-positive oropharyngeal cancer. We must strive to ensure that all men and women, no matter their insurance status or race, can get access to high-quality treatment for head and neck cancers.”

KEY POINTS

  • Among patients with HPV-positive oropharyngeal cancer, there was a 5.6% rate of cancer-specific death at 20 months for white individuals, compared to an 11.2% rate for nonwhite patients.
  • The rate of cancer-specific death for people with health insurance was 6.2% vs 14.8% for those who were uninsured.

Results

The researchers used a custom Surveillance, Epidemiology, and End Results Database to identify 4,735 adult patients who were diagnosed with primary nonmetastatic squamous cell carcinoma of the head and neck with a known HPV status in 2013 or 2014.

The data showed that among patients with HPV-positive oropharyngeal cancer, there was a 5.6% rate of cancer-specific death at 20 months for white individuals, compared to an 11.2% rate for nonwhite patients. The rate of cancer-specific death for people with health insurance was 6.2% vs 14.8% for those who were uninsured. These outcome disparities were not seen for nonoropharyngeal cancers, or prognostically less favorable HPV-negative squamous cell carcinoma of the head and neck.

Commentary

“The study by Pike et al highlights the socioeconomic differences between patients with HPV-positive and HPV-negative squamous cell carcinoma of the head and neck and identifies striking racial disparities among individuals with HPV-positive oropharyngeal squamous cell carcinoma of the head and neck, whereby nonwhite and uninsured patients with HPV-positive cancers had worse cancer-specific mortality,” commented Francis Worden, MD, of the University of Michigan Rogel Cancer Center, and Member of the NCCN Clinical Practice Guidelines in Oncology (NCCN Guidelines®) Panel for Head and Neck Cancers, who was not involved in this research. 

Francis Worden, MD

Francis Worden, MD

“While the exact reasons for these findings are speculative given the retrospective nature of this work, their data bring to light the importance for early diagnosis and treatment of all patients with HPV-positive oropharyngeal cancers and the importance of identifying and eliminating barriers to care. HPV-positive cancers are highly curable, but data does show that patients who present with higher-stage disease (due primarily to delays in diagnosis and thus delays in treatment) have lower overall survival rates. Additionally, lower-income, nonwhite populations may be less likely to obtain care at larger, more experienced cancer centers that treat higher volumes of [patients with] head and neck cancers. Published data suggest that patient care at such centers of excellence leads to improved outcomes due to expertise in administering complex treatment plans and the high level of support that is provided during medical care.”

Disclosure: For full disclosures of the study authors, visit jnccn.org.

The content in this post has not been reviewed by the American Society of Clinical Oncology, Inc. (ASCO®) and does not necessarily reflect the ideas and opinions of ASCO®.
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