OBJECTIVES: The purpose of this study was to discuss the experience of one tumor registry with performing tonsillectomy in the diagnostic approach to unknown head and neck primary tumors. It also describes the importance of including tonsillectomy in this evaluation algorithm. STUDY DESIGN: A retrospective chart review was done of 68 patients with either tonsillar or unknown primary squamous cell carcinoma culled from 829 patients seen from 1956 to 1996 at the head and neck tumor registry at the Naval Medical Center San Diego. METHODS: Records from the head and neck tumor registry, radiation oncology service, and pathology department were reviewed with attention to presenting symptom, initial examination, diagnostic studies performed, and type and result of biopsies performed. RESULTS: Thirty-four patients sought treatment for a neck lymph node metastasis of squamous cell carcinoma without an identifiable primary tumor site. Six of these (18%) had the primary site diagnosed by performing tonsillectomy ipsilateral to the presenting neck mass. Six of 14 T1 tonsillar carcinomas in this series had the primary site identified by tonsillectomy. CONCLUSIONS: Despite a diligent search, a primary tumor site may not be found in the head and neck cancer patient. The tonsil may harbor an occult squamous cell carcinoma. The patient benefits from identification of the initial tumor site because postoperative irradiation ports may be reduced and because surveillance for recurrence may be improved. For these reasons, tonsillectomy should be performed ipsilateral to the presenting cervical metastasis if no other primary tumor site is identified.
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