Reliability of clinical nodal status regarding response to neoadjuvant chemoradiotherapy compared with surgery alone and prognosis in esophageal cancer patients

Background: Clinical nodal (cN) staging is a key element in treatment decisions in patients with esophageal cancer (EC). The reliability of cN status regarding the effect on response and survival after neoadjuvant chemoradiotherapy (nCRT) with esophagectomy was evaluated in determining the up- and downstaged pathological nodal (pN) status after surgery alone.

Material and methods: From a prospective database, we included all 395 EC patients who had surgery with curative intent with or without nCRT between 2000 and 2015. All patients were staged by a standard pretreatment protocol: 16-64 mdCT, 18 F-FDG-PET or 18 F-FDG-PET/CT and EUS ± FNA. After propensity score matching on baseline clinical tumor and nodal (cT/N) stage and histopathology, a surgery-alone and nCRT group (each N = 135) were formed. Clinical and pathological N stage was scored as equal (cN = pN), downstaged (cN > pN) or upstaged (cN < pN). Prognostic impact on disease free survival (DFS) was assessed with multivariable Cox regression analysis (factors with p value <.1 on univariable analysis).

Results: The surgery-alone and nCRT group did not differ in cT/N status. Pathologic examination revealed equal staging (32 vs. 27%), nodal up (43 vs. 16%) and downstaging (25 vs. 56%), respectively (p < .001). Nodal up-staging was common in cT3-4a tumors and adenocarcinomas in the surgery-alone group, while nodal downstaging was found in half of cT1-2 and cT3-4 regardless of tumortype after nCRT. Prognostic factors for DFS were pN (p = .002) and lymph-angioinvasion (p = .016) in surgery-alone, and upper abdominal cN metastases (p = .012) and lymph node ratio (p = .034) in the nCRT group.

Conclusions: Despite modern staging methods, correct cN staging remains difficult in EC. Nodal overstaging (cN > pN) occurred more often than understaging impeding an adequate assessment of pathologic complete response and prognosis after nCRT.

Preoperative assessment of true nodal response after nCRT in EC remains difficult with clinical nodal upstaging (16% vs. 43%) and downstaging (56% vs. 25%) after nCRT and surgery alone, respectively.