Head and Neck Cancer

Primary Author: Schlaberg, Robert, MD, MPH.

  • Key Points
  • Diagnosis
  • Monitoring
  • Background
  • Lab Tests
  • References
  • Related Topics

HPV Testing in Head and Neck Cancer

Within the head and neck squamous cell cancers (HNSCC), those that are human papilloma virus positive (HPV+) are recognized as a distinct subset based on etiology, molecular-genetic aberrations, and favorable clinical outcomes. The recent NCCN Clinical Practice Guidelines in Oncology recommend that oropharyngeal SCCs are tested for high risk oncogenic HPV (NCCN guidelines, 2015). Either immunohistochemistry (IHC) for analysis of p16 expression or in situ hybridization (ISH) for detection of HPV DNA in tumor cell nuclei is recommended. HPV+ tumors are more common in the tongue and tonsils (lingual and palatine) and tend to occur in younger individuals who do not have the typical risk factors of tobacco smoking and alcohol consumption.

Detection of oncogenic HPV infection in tumors

  • Best method for detection not established; choice depends on specimen available
  • Available options for detecting HPV DNA in tumor cell nuclei

Indications for Testing

  • Persistence of symptoms listed in clinical presentation (see Clinical Background section), particularly hoarseness, sore throat, or dysphagia

Laboratory Testing

  • Refer to Key Points section

Histology

  • Gold standard for diagnosis – usually obtained via endoscopy, biopsy, fine needle aspiration of mass
  • Immunohistochemistry and in situ hybridization
    • Refer to Key Points
  • Epstein-Barr virus (EBV) for nasopharyngeal carcinomas

Imaging Studies

  • CT/MRI/PET – establish local and regional extent of disease
    • PET
      • Useful in treatment planning and monitoring
      • Good sensitivity/specificity for detection of nodal metastases

Prognosis

  • Markers
    • HPV – positive tumors have improved prognosis
    • EGFR
      • FISH is sensitive for amplification
      • High levels associated with poor prognosis
      • May be useful in establishing treatment regimens
    • p53 – may predict poor prognosis
    • HER2 – variably expressed but may be associated with improved prognosis
  • Stage at diagnosis helps predict survival
  • Presence of comorbidity – strong predictor of mortality in head and neck cancers
  • Nature and location of tumors
    • Great impact on patient perceptions for future quality of life
    • May determine treatment options that ultimately affect patient mortality

Differential Diagnosis

  • Squamous cell carcinoma (SCC) antigen
    • Monitoring test only – not intended for use in diagnosis
    • Serial determinations (pre- and postsurgery) are necessary – most useful in following cancer recurrence
    • Antigen levels decrease to normal levels ~96 hours after removal of lesion
  • Lipid-associated sialic acid – limited use as a marker in SCC
  • Epstein-Barr virus DNA quantitative PCR – useful for monitoring treatment response and disease progression in nasopharyngeal carcinoma

Squamous cell carcinoma (SCC) of the head and neck is the most common malignancy (90%) of the upper aerodigestive tract. Less common malignancies include melanomasarcomalymphoma, and oral metastases.

Epidemiology

  • Incidence
    • >55,000 estimated new U.S. cases – represents ~3% of new cancers (NCCN, 2015)
    • >600,000 new cases worldwide
    • Increased incidence over the past 10 years – attributed to increasing prevalence of human papillomavirus (HPV)
      • HPV infection linked to practice of oral sex with multiple sex partners
      • Cancer of the base of the tongue and tonsils (especially in <45 age group) is the most common etiology of this increased incidence – these cancers are highly related to HPV
  • Age – peaks in 50s
    • Tumors associated with HPV peak in mid 40s
  • Sex – M>F, 3:1
  • Ethnicity – occurs more often in African Americans than Caucasians

Risk Factors

  • Tobacco use – increases risk five- to 25-fold
  • Alcohol abuse – when combined with smoking, risk increases geometrically
  • Occupational exposures
    • Nickel refining, chromium, mustard gas, radium
    • Woodworking and tanning byproducts
  • Viral infection
    • Epstein-Barr virus – associated with nasopharyngeal carcinoma
    • HPV types 16, 18, 31 – associated with carcinoma of lingual and palatine tonsils
      • Tend not to be associated with smoking or alcohol consumption
  • Betel nut chewing
  • Family history – 1.2- to 2.3-fold higher risk
  • Primary head and neck tumor increases risk for secondary tumors in other head and neck sites and for tumors of lung, esophagus, and other sites sharing similar risk factors

Pathophysiology

  • Aerodigestive tract is lined with squamous and respiratory epithelium
  • Premalignant disease (epithelial dysplasia) may precede frank malignancy

Clinical Presentation

  • Oral cavity – nonhealing ulcers on the floor of the mouth, tongue, buccal mucosa, and hard palate; persistent sore throat
  • Hypopharynx – hoarseness, dysphagia, otalgia, enlarged cervical nodes
  • Oropharynx – sore throat, otalgia, odynophagia, chronic dysphagia
  • Larynx – hoarseness, shortness of breath; supraglottic (neck mass)
  • Nasopharynx – usually late symptoms of bleeding, obstruction, cranial nerve palsy; otitis media unresponsive to antibiotics
  • Salivary glands – swelling, adenopathy
  • Paranasal sinuses – obstructions, symptoms occur usually late in disease
  • See Thyroid Cancer for information on thyroid tumors

Tests generally appear in the order most useful for common clinical situations. Click on number for test-specific information in the ARUP Laboratory Test Directory.

Human Papillomavirus (HPV), High Risk by in situ Hybridization, Paraffin 2002899
Method: In situ Hybridization

p16 by Immunohistochemistry 2004064
Method: Immunohistochemistry

Follow Up

HPV ISH testing recommended to confirm HPV

EGFR Gene Amplification by FISH 2008605
Method: Fluorescence in situ Hybridization

Limitations

Tissues fixed in alcohol-based or non-formalin fixatives have not been tested using this method

ERBB2 (HER2/neu) (HercepTest) by Immunohistochemistry, Tissue with Reflex to FISH if 2+ 0049178
Method: Immunohistochemistry

Epstein-Barr Virus, Quantitative PCR 0051352
Method: Quantitative Polymerase Chain Reaction

Epstein-Barr Virus (EBV) by in situ Hybridization, Paraffin 2002902
Method: In situ Hybridization

Related Tests

Guidelines

NCCN Clinical Practice Guidelines in Oncology, Head and Neck Cancers. National Comprehensive Cancer Network. Fort Washington, PA [Accessed: Feb 2016]

Protocol for the Examination of Specimens from Patients with Carcinomas of the Larynx. Based on AJCC/UICC TNM, 7th ed. Protocol web posting date: June 2012. College of American Pathologists (CAP). Northfield, IL [Accessed: Jun 2015]

Protocol for the Examination of Specimens from Patients with Carcinomas of the Lip and Oral Cavity. Based on AJCC/UICC TNM, 7th ed. Protocol web posting date: June 2012. College of American Pathologists (CAP). Northfield, IL [Accessed: Jun 2015]

Protocol for the Examination of Specimens from Patients with Carcinomas of the Nasal Cavity and Paranasal Sinuses. Based on AJCC/UICC TNM, 7th ed. Protocol web posting date: June 2012. College of American Pathologists (CAP). Northfield, IL [Accessed: Jun 2015]

Protocol for the Examination of Specimens from Patients with Carcinomas of the Pharynx . Based on AJCC/UICC TNM, 7th ed. Protocol web posting date: June 2012. College of American Pathologists (CAP). Northfield, IL [Accessed: Jun 2015]

Protocol for the Examination of Specimens from Patients with Carcinomas of the Salivary Glands. Based on AJCC/UICC TNM, 7th ed. Protocol web posting date: June 2012. College of American Pathologists (CAP). Northfield, IL [Accessed: Jun 2015]

General References

Hunt JL. An update on molecular diagnostics of squamous and salivary gland tumors of the head and neck. Arch Pathol Lab Med. 2011; 135(5): 602-9. PubMed

Leemans R, Braakhuis BJ M, Brakenhoff RH. The molecular biology of head and neck cancer. Nat Rev Cancer. 2011; 11(1): 9-22. PubMed

Mehanna H, Paleri V, West CM L, Nutting C. Head and neck cancer--Part 1: Epidemiology, presentation, and prevention. BMJ. 2010; 341: c4684. PubMed

Mehanna H, West CM L, Nutting C, Paleri V. Head and neck cancer--Part 2: Treatment and prognostic factors. BMJ. 2010; 341: c4690. PubMed

Robinson M, Sloan P, Shaw R. Refining the diagnosis of oropharyngeal squamous cell carcinoma using human papillomavirus testing. Oral Oncol. 2010; 46(7): 492-6. PubMed

Smeets SJ, Hesselink AT, Speel EM, Haesevoets A, Snijders PJ F, Pawlita M, Meijer CJ L M, Braakhuis BJ M, Leemans R, Brakenhoff RH. A novel algorithm for reliable detection of human papillomavirus in paraffin embedded head and neck cancer specimen. Int J Cancer. 2007; 121(11): 2465-72. PubMed

References from the ARUP Institute for Clinical and Experimental Pathology®

Medical Reviewers

Last Update: February 2016