Surgical treatment of squamous cell carcinoma of the base of tongue

Christine G. Gourin, Jonas T. Johnson

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Introduction. Squamous cell carcinoma (SSC) of the tongue base has historically been shown to be associated with a poor prognosis. We reviewed our experience with primary surgery followed by postoperative radiation therapy (XRT) to determine the impact of our treatment protocols on outcome. Methods. We retrospectively reviewed the records of all patients presenting to the University of Pittsburgh with previously untreated SSC of the tongue base between 1980-1997. Patients who were treated nonoperatively were excluded from analysis. Surgical excision of the primary was performed with ipsilateral neck dissection. The contralateral neck was dissected when the primary lesion was located in the midline or for clinically positive contralateral neck nodes. Postoperatively, most patients (93%) received XRT to the primary site and neck. Adjuvant chemotherapy was offered if histologic signs of aggressive behavior were identified (multiple nodes or extracapsular spread). Results. Of 87 patients identified, 39 (45%) were initially seen with T1 or T2 tumors. Seventy-nine patients (91%) were initially seen with stage III or IV disease. Contralateral neck dissection was performed in 36 patients (41%). Metastatic disease was demonstrated in 84% of ipsilateral neck nodes and in 47% of contralateral neck nodes. Occult metastases were found in 61% of clinically NO necks. Local recurrence occurred in 5 patients, regional recurrence occurred in 12 patients, and distant metastases developed in 22 patients. Overall and disease-specific survival rates at 5 years for all patients were 49% and 56%, respectively. The 5 year disease-specific survival rates for stage I, stage II, stage III, and stage IV disease were 100%, 86%, 62%, and 48%. The 5-year disease-specific survival rate was 88% for T1 lesions, 64% for T2 lesions, 58% for T3 lesions, and 30% for T4 lesions (p <. 05, log-rank test). Conclusions. Surgical treatment of SCC of the tongue base is highly effective in achieving local disease control and disease-free survival for early lesions. Because both functional outcome and survival are poor after surgical treatment of advanced lesions, we now offer brachytherapy with XRT or participation in a combined chemoradiation protocol rather than primary surgical therapy to patients with advanced disease. Prospective studies are needed to compare the effect of these organ-preserving therapies with traditional combined surgery and XRT to determine the effect on functional outcome and quality of life.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)653-660
Number of pages8
JournalHead and Neck
Issue number8
StatePublished - 2001
Externally publishedYes


  • Local control
  • Squamous cell carcinoma
  • Surgery
  • Survival
  • Tongue base

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Otorhinolaryngology


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