Immunotherapy kinder than chemotherapy for patients with head and neck cancer

The immunotherapy nivolumab is kinder than chemotherapy for people with advanced head and neck cancer – easing many of the negative effects of the disease on patients’ quality of life.
Both head and neck cancer and the treatment for it can have a huge impact on patients – affecting their speech, breathing, eating and drinking, facial appearance, and general wellbeing.
All of this can cause substantial psychological, as well as physical, distress.
But patients taking part in a major phase III clinical trial – led by researchers at The Institute of Cancer Research, London, and The Royal Marsden NHS Foundation Trust – reported that nivolumab helped them maintain a better quality of life for longer.
By contrast, the same study also found that people treated with standard chemotherapies docetaxel, methotrexate or cetuximab reported a decline in quality of life from the start of treatment.
Last year, the clinical trial of 361 patients found that nivolumab – which sparks the immune system into action against cancers – greatly increased survival for people with recurrent or metastatic head and neck cancer.
But the drug was initially rejected by NICE in April this year and is currently under consultation before a final decision is due.
The new results add to the growing body of evidence that immunotherapy can be a smarter, kinder treatment for people with cancer.
In the latest study, 129 patients on the trial filled in questionnaires about their quality of life – covering physical symptoms, mental health and general wellbeing.
While patients on chemotherapy judged their quality of life to be lower at nine and 15 weeks into the trial, patients on nivolumab gave consistently better ratings throughout.
After nine weeks, patients given nivolumab reported that they were doing better than their counterparts on other treatments for a range of symptoms, including pain, sensory problems, appetite loss, tiredness and breathing problems.
After 15 weeks, the list of beneficial effects was even longer, with patients taking nivolumab being less badly affected by nausea, insomnia and weight loss.

Institute of Cancer Research