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Home > Living Well > Health Library > Metastatic Squamous Neck Cancer with Occult Primary Treatment (Adult) (PDQ®): Treatment - Patient Information [NCI]
This information is produced and provided by the National Cancer Institute (NCI). The information in this topic may have changed since it was written. For the most current information, contact the National Cancer Institute via the Internet web site at http://cancer.gov or call 1-800-4-CANCER.
Metastatic squamous neck cancer with occult primary is a disease in which squamous cell cancer spreads to lymph nodes in the neck and it is not known where the cancer first formed in the body.
Squamous cells are thin, flat cells found in tissues that form the surface of the skin and the lining of body cavities such as the mouth, hollow organs such as the uterus and blood vessels, and the lining of the respiratory (breathing) and digestive tracts. Some organs with squamous cells are the esophagus, lungs, kidneys, and uterus. Cancer can begin in squamous cells anywhere in the body and metastasize (spread) through the blood or lymph system to other parts of the body.
When squamous cell cancer spreads to lymph nodes in the neck or around the collarbone, it is called metastatic squamous neck cancer. The doctor will try to find the primary tumor (the cancer that first formed in the body), because treatment for metastatic cancer is the same as treatment for the primary tumor. For example, when lung cancer spreads to the neck, the cancer cells in the neck are lung cancer cells and they are treated the same as the cancer in the lung. Sometimes doctors cannot find where in the body the cancer first began to grow. When tests cannot find a primary tumor, it is called an occult (hidden) primary tumor. In many cases, the primary tumor is never found.
Signs and symptoms of metastatic squamous neck cancer with occult primary include a lump or pain in the neck or throat.
Check with your doctor if you have a lump or pain in your neck or throat that doesn't go away. These and other signs and symptoms may be caused by metastatic squamous neck cancer with occult primary. Other conditions may cause the same signs and symptoms.
Tests that examine the tissues of the neck, respiratory tract, and upper part of the digestive tract are used to detect (find) and diagnose metastatic squamous neck cancer and the primary tumor.
Tests will include checking for a primary tumor in the organs and tissues of the respiratory tract (part of the trachea), the upper part of the digestive tract (including the lips, mouth, tongue, nose, throat, vocal cords, and part of the esophagus), and the genitourinary system.
The following procedures may be used:
Three types of biopsy may be done:
The following procedures are used to remove samples of cells or tissue:
One or more of the following laboratory tests may be done to study the tissue samples:
A diagnosis of occult primary tumor is made if the primary tumor is not found during testing or treatment.
Certain factors affect prognosis (chance of recovery) and treatment options.
The prognosis and treatment options depend on the following:
Treatment options also depend on the following:
After metastatic squamous neck cancer with occult primary has been diagnosed, tests are done to find out if cancer cells have spread to other parts of the body.
The process used to find out if cancer has spread to other parts of the body is called staging. There is no standard staging system for metastatic squamous neck cancer with occult primary.
The results from tests and procedures used to detect and diagnose the primary tumor are also used to find out if cancer has spread to other parts of the body.
The tumors are described as untreated or recurrent. Untreated metastatic squamous neck cancer with occult primary is cancer that is newly diagnosed and has not been treated, except to relieve signs and symptoms caused by the cancer.
There are three ways that cancer spreads in the body.
Cancer can spread through tissue, the lymph system, and the blood:
Metastatic squamous neck cancer with occult primary can recur (come back) after it has been treated.
The cancer may come back in the neck or in other parts of the body.
There are different types of treatment for patients with metastatic squamous neck cancer with occult primary.
Different types of treatment are available for patients with metastatic squamous neck cancer with occult primary. Some treatments are standard (the currently used treatment), and some are being tested in clinical trials. A treatment clinical trial is a research study meant to help improve current treatments or obtain information on new treatments for patients with cancer. When clinical trials show that a new treatment is better than the standard treatment, the new treatment may become the standard treatment. Patients may want to think about taking part in a clinical trial. Some clinical trials are open only to patients who have not started treatment.
Two types of standard treatment are used:
Surgery may include neck dissection. There are different types of neck dissection, based on the amount of tissue that is removed.
After the doctor removes all the cancer that can be seen at the time of surgery, some patients may be given radiation therapy after surgery to kill any cancer cells that are left. Treatment given after surgery, to lower the risk that the cancer will come back, is called adjuvant therapy.
Radiation therapy is a cancer treatment that uses high-energy x-rays or other types of radiation to kill cancer cells or keep them from growing. External radiation therapy uses a machine outside the body to send radiation toward the area of the body with cancer. Intensity-modulated radiation therapy (IMRT) is a type of 3-dimensional (3-D) external radiation therapy that uses a computer to make pictures of the size and shape of the tumor. Thin beams of radiation of different intensities (strengths) are aimed at the tumor from many angles. This type of radiation therapy is less likely to cause dry mouth, trouble swallowing, and damage to the skin.
External-beam radiation therapy of the head and neck. A machine is used to aim high-energy radiation at the cancer. The machine can rotate around the patient, delivering radiation from many different angles to provide highly conformal treatment. A mesh mask helps keep the patient's head and neck from moving during treatment. Small ink marks are put on the mask. The ink marks are used to line up the radiation machine in the same position before each treatment.
Radiation therapy to the neck may change the way the thyroid gland works. Blood tests may be done to check the thyroid hormone level in the body before treatment and at regular checkups after treatment.
New types of treatment are being tested in clinical trials.
This summary section describes treatments that are being studied in clinical trials. It may not mention every new treatment being studied. Information about clinical trials is available from the NCI website.
Chemotherapy is a cancer treatment that uses drugs to stop the growth of cancer cells, either by killing the cells or by stopping them from dividing. When chemotherapy is taken by mouth or injected into a vein or muscle, the drugs enter the bloodstream and can reach cancer cells throughout the body (systemic chemotherapy).
Hyperfractionated radiation therapy
Hyperfractionated radiation therapy is a type of external radiation treatment in which a smaller than usual total daily dose of radiation is divided into two doses and the treatments are given twice a day. Hyperfractionated radiation therapy is given over the same period of time (days or weeks) as standard radiation therapy.
Treatment for metastatic squamous neck cancer with occult primary may cause side effects.
For information about side effects caused by treatment for cancer, see our Side Effects page.
Patients may want to think about taking part in a clinical trial.
For some patients, taking part in a clinical trial may be the best treatment choice. Clinical trials are part of the cancer research process. Clinical trials are done to find out if new cancer treatments are safe and effective or better than the standard treatment.
Many of today's standard treatments for cancer are based on earlier clinical trials. Patients who take part in a clinical trial may receive the standard treatment or be among the first to receive a new treatment.
Patients who take part in clinical trials also help improve the way cancer will be treated in the future. Even when clinical trials do not lead to effective new treatments, they often answer important questions and help move research forward.
Patients can enter clinical trials before, during, or after starting their cancer treatment.
Some clinical trials only include patients who have not yet received treatment. Other trials test treatments for patients whose cancer has not gotten better. There are also clinical trials that test new ways to stop cancer from recurring (coming back) or reduce the side effects of cancer treatment.
Clinical trials are taking place in many parts of the country. Information about clinical trials supported by NCI can be found on NCI's clinical trials search webpage. Clinical trials supported by other organizations can be found on the ClinicalTrials.gov website.
Follow-up tests may be needed.
Some of the tests that were done to diagnose the cancer or to find out the stage of the cancer may be repeated. Some tests will be repeated in order to see how well the treatment is working. Decisions about whether to continue, change, or stop treatment may be based on the results of these tests.
Some of the tests will continue to be done from time to time after treatment has ended. The results of these tests can show if your condition has changed or if the cancer has recurred (come back). These tests are sometimes called follow-up tests or check-ups.
For information about the treatments listed below, see the Treatment Option Overview section.
Treatment of untreated metastatic squamous neck cancer with occult primary may include the following:
Use our clinical trial search to find NCI-supported cancer clinical trials that are accepting patients. You can search for trials based on the type of cancer, the age of the patient, and where the trials are being done. General information about clinical trials is also available.
Treatment of recurrent metastatic squamous neck cancer with occult primary is usually within a clinical trial.
For more information from the National Cancer Institute about metastatic squamous neck cancer with occult primary, see the following:
For general cancer information and other resources from the National Cancer Institute, see the following:
Physician Data Query (PDQ) is the National Cancer Institute's (NCI's) comprehensive cancer information database. The PDQ database contains summaries of the latest published information on cancer prevention, detection, genetics, treatment, supportive care, and complementary and alternative medicine. Most summaries come in two versions. The health professional versions have detailed information written in technical language. The patient versions are written in easy-to-understand, nontechnical language. Both versions have cancer information that is accurate and up to date and most versions are also available in Spanish.
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Purpose of This Summary
This PDQ cancer information summary has current information about the treatment of adult metastatic squamous neck cancer with occult primary. It is meant to inform and help patients, families, and caregivers. It does not give formal guidelines or recommendations for making decisions about health care.
Reviewers and Updates
Editorial Boards write the PDQ cancer information summaries and keep them up to date. These Boards are made up of experts in cancer treatment and other specialties related to cancer. The summaries are reviewed regularly and changes are made when there is new information. The date on each summary ("Updated") is the date of the most recent change.
The information in this patient summary was taken from the health professional version, which is reviewed regularly and updated as needed, by the PDQ Adult Treatment Editorial Board.
Clinical Trial Information
A clinical trial is a study to answer a scientific question, such as whether one treatment is better than another. Trials are based on past studies and what has been learned in the laboratory. Each trial answers certain scientific questions in order to find new and better ways to help cancer patients. During treatment clinical trials, information is collected about the effects of a new treatment and how well it works. If a clinical trial shows that a new treatment is better than one currently being used, the new treatment may become "standard." Patients may want to think about taking part in a clinical trial. Some clinical trials are open only to patients who have not started treatment.
Clinical trials can be found online at NCI's website. For more information, call the Cancer Information Service (CIS), NCI's contact center, at 1-800-4-CANCER (1-800-422-6237).
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The best way to cite this PDQ summary is:
PDQ® Adult Treatment Editorial Board. PDQ Metastatic Squamous Neck Cancer with Occult Primary Treatment (Adult). Bethesda, MD: National Cancer Institute. Updated <MM/DD/YYYY>. Available at: https://www.cancer.gov/types/head-and-neck/patient/adult/metastatic-squamous-neck-treatment-pdq. Accessed <MM/DD/YYYY>. [PMID: 26389176]
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Last Revised: 2021-07-23
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