Objective: To evaluate radiation-induced lymphopenia associated with unilateral vs. bilateral neck radiation and to test post-treatment neutrophil to lymphocyte ratio (NLR) as a prognostic clinical biomarker. Methods: This was a single academic center retrospective review of palatine tonsil squamous cell cancer patients treated with post-operative intensity modulated radiation therapy (IMRT) from 1997 to 2013. Absolute lymphocyte count (ALC) and NLR were evaluated during and after radiation for up to a year. Correlations of lab values with loco-regional control (LRC), freedom from distant metastases (FFDM), and overall survival (OS) were assessed. Results: Ninety-nine patients with median follow up 5.8 years had ALC recorded at least at baseline and within one year of starting RT. Acute grade 3–4 lymphopenia (<10 weeks from RT start) occurred in 79% of bilateral neck RT patients (n = 70) and 58% of unilateral neck RT patients (n = 29), p = 0.03. There was no significant difference in late grade 3–4 (p = 0.12) lymphopenia. In a multivariable Cox regression model, acute NLR > 11.875 correlated with worse OS (HR = 4.4, 95% CI 1.2–16). Late NLR > 6.875 independently correlated with significantly worse FFDM (HR = 16, 95% CI 1.9–137) and OS (HR = 12, 95% CI 3.0–48). Conclusions: Unilateral neck radiation may prevent acute iatrogenic immunosuppression. In exploratory analyses, elevated post-treatment NLR was associated with risk for distant metastases and death.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1-7
Number of pages7
JournalOral Oncology
StatePublished - Nov 2018


  • Head and neck
  • Immunosuppression
  • Lymphopenia
  • Neutrophil to lymphocyte ratio
  • Oropharynx
  • Squamous cell carcinoma (SCC)
  • Tonsil cancer
  • Unilateral radiation


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