Surgical treatment for cancer of the oral cavity can result in dramatic aesthetic and functional sequelae partially avoidable by reconstructive techniques. Many studies concerning quality of life have been carried out in order to retrospectively assess outcomes after such major oncological procedures. Aim of this study was to evaluate, in a prospective fashion, the quality of life as a primary endpoint in patients treated for cancers involving the oral cavity and requiring reconstruction. The study design consisted of a prospective evaluation of pre- and post-operative quality of life at 3, 6, and 12 months to assess variations during follow-up using two different questionnaires: the University of Washington Quality of Life and the Head and Neck Performance Status Scale. Between May 1999 and October 2004, 92 patients with oral cancer requiring reconstruction were treated. All were included in the study, but only 35 (38%) concluded the evaluation protocol at one year after surgery without evidence of disease. The mean pre- and post-operative (3, 6, and 12 months) scores of the questionnaires and the scores of specific University of Washington Quality of Life categories (disfigurement, chewing, swallowing, comprehension of speech) were evaluated. The impact on residual quality of life of different factors such as gender, extension of tongue and mandibular defects, type of reconstruction, and radiotherapy was statistically quantified with a Wilcoxon non-parametric test and logistic regression for multivariate analysis. Comparison of mean pre- and post-operative scores between the University of Washington Quality of Life and Head and Neck Performance Status Scale, showed a similar trend during the study period with a significant decrease at 3 months after surgery and subsequent gradual improvement at 6 and 12 months. The majority of patients (77%) preserved normal or near normal functions at 12 months after surgery. The chewing domain worsened considerably (p < 0.05), with poorer outcome in patients undergoing segmental mandibulectomy (p < 0.05). By multivariate analysis, mandibular resection maintained its statistical significance in the chewing domain (p = 0.038). Moreover, the type of reconstruction was an independent factor (p = 0.038) that influenced the University of Washington Quality of Life total score, with better functional results after free flap reconstruction. Despite the dismal prognosis of patients affected by advanced oral cavity cancer, reconstructive techniques play a crucial role in maintenance of satisfactory quality of life
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