Radiotherapy treatment of head and neck cancer affects local arteries and increases the risk of stroke. This study aimed at a closer characterization of this damage and its development in time with a longitudinal study set up.
Male patients treated between 2011 and 2016 for hypopharyngeal carcinoma were identified from the in-house clinical data base. They were included into the study if besides the planning CT at least one additional CT image was available from follow-up (13 patients) or at least two MRI scans (16 patients of which 2 were already included). All patients received radiotherapy, and chemotherapy was administered to 16 patients. The time from the beginning of radiotherapy to the last available image ranged from 2 months to 4.5 years.
For six segments of the carotid arteries, the number and volume of atherosclerotic plaques were determined from the CT scans, and the intima media thickness from the MRI scans. Information on comorbid cardiovascular disease, hypertension and diabetes mellitus was retrieved from medical records.
Total plaque volume rose from 0.25 cm3 before to 0.33 cm3 after therapy but this was not significant (p = 0.26). The mean number of plaques increased from 5.7 to 8.1 (p = 0.002), and the intima media thickened from 1.17 mm to 1.35 mm (p = 0.002). However, the mean intima media thickness practically did not change in patients with comorbid diabetes mellitus (p-value for homogeneity: 0.03). For patients without diabetes mellitus, dynamics of both plaque number and intima media thickness, was consistent with an increase until about one year after therapy and no further progression thereafter.
Our study confirmed the thickening of artery walls and the increase in the number of plaques. Results imply that definitive radiation damage to the artery walls can be determined not earlier than about one year after radiotherapy and there is no substantial deterioration thereafter. Reasons for the absence of an observable intima media thickening in patients with diabetes are unclear.