BACKGROUND: Cisplatin and cetuximab are both systemic therapies commonly used in combination with radiation (RT) for the definitive treatment of head and neck cancers, but their comparative efficacy is unclear.METHODS: Patients with locoregionally advanced (American Joint Committee on Cancer stage III-IVB) squamous cell carcinomas of the oropharynx, larynx, or hypopharynx were identified in the Surveillance, Epidemiology, and End Results-Medicare database. Patients received either cisplatin or cetuximab concurrent with RT, as determined by Medicare claims. The primary study outcome was head and neck cancer-specific mortality (CSM) analyzed with competing risks. Filtering, propensity score matching, and multivariable Fine-Gray regression were used to adjust for differences between the cisplatin and cetuximab cohorts, including age, comorbidity, and cycles of systemic therapy received.RESULTS: The total cohort consisted of 1395 patients, of whom 786 (56%) received cisplatin and 609 (44%) received cetuximab; the median follow-up was 3.5 years in the patients who remained alive. In the cetuximab cohort, CSM was significantly higher than in the cisplatin cohort (39% vs 25% at 3 years; P < .0001). In the matched cohorts (n = 414), the adjusted hazard ratio of CSM for cetuximab was 1.65 (95% confidence interval, 1.30-2.09; P < .0001) relative to cisplatin, corresponding to an absolute difference of approximately 10% in both CSM and overall survival at 3 years. Cetuximab was associated with less dysphagia, more dermatitis, and a similar incidence of mucositis.CONCLUSIONS: In this sizeable, national patient population, treatment with cetuximab was associated with significantly higher CSM than cisplatin. These results suggest that cisplatin may be the preferred chemotherapeutic agent in this setting. Cancer 2018;124:000-000.
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