The place of radiotherapy in the management of squamous cell oesophageal cancer remains uncertain. Survival of oesophageal cancer patients from the Nottingham area in the years 1982-5 was reviewed. Surgical resection was attempted in 44 of 131 patients with squamous cell oesophageal cancer. Among the remainder 32 had endoscopic intubation alone, 27 had radical radiotherapy alone (six) or combined with endoscopic intubation (21), and 28 had other treatment combinations including surgical intubation and palliative radiotherapy. Patients treated by intubation alone had a mean age of 75 years. They were significantly older and metastases were more common (31%) in this group than in patients treated with radiotherapy (mean age 69 years), of whom 11% had metastases. Some 34% (11 of 32) of patients treated by intubation alone died within 30 days of diagnosis and were therefore not eligible for radiotherapy. Beyond 30 days, survival in the radiotherapy group (median survival 188 days; 95% confidence limits 133-253) was not significantly greater than that for the group treated by intubation alone (median survival 98 days (73-154)). The radiotherapy patients had a median hospital stay of 46 days compared with 23 days for the patients treated by intubation alone. In patients with squamous cell oesophageal cancer unsuitable for surgery, the survival advantage associated with radiotherapy and intubation is small and does not compensate for the extra morbidity and prolonged hospital stay. A controlled trial of radiotherapy in these patients is now needed.
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