The presence of cervical lymph node metastasis in patients with head and neck cancer is associated with an unfavorable prognosis. Reports vary as to whether various conventional radiographic studies, such as computed tomography (CT) and magnetic resonance imaging, confer an advantage over physical examination in the patient without clinical findings of cervical metastasis (NO). Positron emission tomography (PET) is a functional imaging modality that has recently been used for head and neck neoplasms. The use of PET in the evaluation of the NO-staged neck in 14 consecutive patients with squamous cell carcinoma (SCC) of the upper aerodigestive tract is reported. Seven patients (50%) undergoing 13 neck dissections had pathologic evidence of disease. PET scans were positive in five patients with pathologically confirmed cervical metastasis. PET scans were negative in seven patients (11 neck dissections) with no pathologic evidence of disease. PET scans were positive for unilateral cervical metastasis in two of three patients with involvement of a single lymph node. PET scans were positive in two of three patients with more than two lymph nodes involved. PET had an accuracy of 100% in the eight patients with SCC of the oral cavity. In patients with oropharyngeal or hypopharyngeal carcinoma PET localized cervical metastasis in two of four patients with neck metastasis. In the patient with an NO- staged neck on clinical examination, PET was found to have an overall sensitivity of 78%, specificity of 100%, positive predictive value of 100%, negative predictive value of 88%, and accuracy of 92%. CT demonstrated sensitivity of 57%, specificity of 90%, positive predictive value of 80%, negative predictive value of 75%, and accuracy of 76%. PET showed a trend in increased accuracy (P = 0.11) over CT. PET appears to be a promising diagnostic aid that may be applied when evaluating the NO-staged neck, especially for SCC of the oral cavity.
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