Introduction: Muscle wasting conditions such as sarcopenia may be highly prevalent in advanced head and neck cancer (HNC) patients (16-71%), with these prevalence rates substantially greater in those who have received chemo-radiotherapy (CRT). According to the updated European Working Group on Sarcopenia in Older People consensus statement, sarcopenia is defined as the age-related loss of muscle strength, muscle mass and physical performance. The high prevalence of sarcopenia in HNC patients is concerning as it has been associated with substantially increased risk of CRT toxicity, respiratory complications and early mortality. With the high prevalence of HNC and sarcopenia in India and the strong link between sarcopenia and poor HNC patient outcomes, it is important to screen for the presence of sarcopenia in Indian patients receiving CRT for HNC.
Methods: This longitudinal pilot study aimed to routinely monitor 19 men receiving CRT for their HNC for a variety of sarcopenic-related outcomes over three time points during their 7 weeks of CRT. Participants were required to be male, with a minimum age of 30 years, with a Stage III, IVa or IVb diagnosis of HNC and be currently undergoing a 7 weeks course of CRT in an oncology department. Outcomes included probable sarcopenic diagnosis were estimated by the SARC-F, handgrip strength, skeletal muscle mass was estimated by bioelectrical impedance and physical performance was assessed by the Timed Up and Go. Repeated measures ANOVA and Bonferroni post-hoc tests were used to identify significant differences at the three time points with a p < 0.05.
Results: The 19 participants in this trial at a mean age of 56.5 ± 10.2 years (range = 39-75 years), with most (n = 13, 68.4%) employed in laboring occupations. At baseline, 31.5% (n = 6) of the participants already had probable sarcopenia based on their total SARC-F score, with this increasing to 89.4% (n = 17) at the end of 7 weeks CRT. In addition, significant decreases in strength, skeletal muscle mass and Timed Up and Go performance were observed, with these declines significantly greater at 7 weeks than 3 weeks after commencing CRT.
Conclusions: Patients with HNC undergoing 7 weeks of CRT showed clinically significant increases in the incidence of probable sarcopenia based on their total SARC-F score as well as clinically significant declines in handgrip strength, skeletal muscle mass and Timed Up and Go performance. Due to the relationship between sarcopenia and a host of adverse events related to CRT in HNC patients, these results suggest that oncologists and their allied health teams should routinely monitor these patients during CRT and provide the relevant exercise therapy and nutritional support to those patients in need.