Surgery Versus Radiotherapy for Early Oropharyngeal Tumors: a Never-Ending Debate

  • Yan Monnier
  • Christian SimonEmail author
Head and Neck Cancer (J-P Machiels, Section Editor)
Part of the following topical collections:
  1. Topical Collection on Head and Neck Cancer

Opinion statement

Therapeutic options for early stage oropharyngeal squamous cell carcinoma (OPSCC) include both surgery and radiotherapy as single treatment modality. Retrospective data reporting on locoregional control and survival rates in early stage OPSCC have shown equivalent efficacy, although no prospective randomized trials are available to confirm these results. Given the assumed comparable oncologic results in both groups, complication rates and functional outcomes associated with each modality play a major role when making treatment decisions. Radiotherapy is used preferentially in many centers because few trials have reported higher complication rates in surgical patients. However, these adverse effects were mainly due to traditional invasive open surgical approaches used for access to the oropharynx. In order to decrease the morbidity of these techniques, transoral surgical (TOS) approaches have been developed progressively. They include transoral laser microsurgery (TLM), transoral robotic surgery (TORS), and conventional transoral techniques. Meta-analysis comparing these new approaches with radiotherapy showed equivalent efficacy in terms of oncologic results. Furthermore, studies reporting on functional outcomes in patients undergoing TOS for OPSCC did not show major long-term functional impairment following treatment. Given the abovementioned statements, it is our practice to treat early stage OPSCC as follows: whenever a single modality treatment seems feasible (T1–2 and N0–1), we advocate TOS resection of the primary tumor associated with selective neck dissection, as indicated. In our opinion, the advantage of this approach relies on the possibility to stratify the risk of disease progression based on the pathological features of the tumor. Depending on the results, adjuvant radiation treatment or chemoradiotherapy can be chosen for high-risk patients. For tumors without adverse features, no adjuvant treatment is given. This approach also allows prevention of potential radiation-induced late complications while keeping radiotherapy as an option for any second primary lesions whenever needed. Definitive radiotherapy is generally reserved for selected patients with specific anatomical location associated with poor functional outcome following surgery, such as tumor of the soft palate, or for patients with severe comorbidities that do not allow surgical treatment.


Oropharyngeal cancer Early stage Trans-oral surgery Radiotherapy Review 


Compliance with Ethics Guidelines

Conflict of Interest

Yan Monnier and Christian Simon declare that they have no conflict of interest.

Human and Animal Rights and Informed Consent

This article does not contain any studies with human or animal subjects performed by any of the authors.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media New York 2015

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Service d’Oto-rhino-laryngologie–Chirurgie cervico-faciale, Centre Hospitalier Universitaire Vaudois (CHUV)Université de Lausanne (UNIL)LausanneSwitzerland

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