Most patients with oesophageal cancer present with incurable disease. For those with advanced disease, the mean survival is 3–5 months. Treatment emphasis is therefore on effective palliation, with the majority of patients requiring intervention for dysphagia. Insertion of a self-expanding metal stent provides rapid relief but dysphagia may recur within 3 months owing to tumour progression. Evidence reviews have called for trials of interventions combined with stenting to better maintain the ability to swallow.
The Radiotherapy after Oesophageal Cancer Stenting (ROCS) study examined the effectiveness of palliative radiotherapy, combined with insertion of a stent, in maintaining the ability to swallow. The trial also examined the impact that the ability to swallow had on quality of life, bleeding events, survival and cost-effectiveness.
A pragmatic, multicentre, randomised controlled trial with follow-up every 4 weeks for 12 months. An embedded qualitative study examined trial experiences in a participant subgroup.
Participants were recruited in secondary care, with all planned follow-up at home.
Patients who were referred for stent insertion as the primary management of dysphagia related to incurable oesophageal cancer.
Following stent insertion, the external beam radiotherapy arm received palliative oesophageal radiotherapy at a dose of 20 Gy in five fractions or 30 Gy in 10 fractions.
Main outcome measures
The primary outcome was the difference in the proportion of participants with recurrent dysphagia, or death, at 12 weeks. Recurrent dysphagia was defined as deterioration of ≥ 11 points on the dysphagia scale of the European Organisation of Research and Treatment of Cancer Quality of Life Questionnaire oesophago-gastric module questionnaire. Secondary outcomes included quality of life, bleeding risk and survival.
The study recruited 220 patients: 112 were randomised to the usual-care arm and 108 were randomised to the external beam radiotherapy arm. There was no evidence that radiotherapy reduced recurrence of dysphagia at 12 weeks (48.6% in the usual-care arm compared with 45.3% in the external beam radiotherapy arm; adjusted odds ratio 0.82, 95% confidence interval 0.40 to 1.68; p = 0.587) and it was less cost-effective than stent insertion alone. There was no difference in median survival or key quality-of-life outcomes. There were fewer bleeding events in the external beam radiotherapy arm. Exploration of patient experience prompted changes to trial processes. Participants in both trial arms experienced difficulty in managing the physical and psychosocial aspects of eating restriction and uncertainties of living with advanced oesophageal cancer.
Change in timing of the primary outcome to 12 weeks may affect the ability to detect a true intervention effect. However, consistency of results across sensitivity analyses is robust, including secondary analysis of dysphagia deterioration-free survival.
Widely accessible palliative external beam radiotherapy in combination with stent insertion does not reduce the risk of dysphagia recurrence at 12 weeks, does not have an impact on survival and is less cost-effective than inserting a stent alone. Reductions in bleeding events should be considered in the context of patient-described trade-offs of fatigue and burdens of attending hospital. Trial design elements including at-home data capture, regular multicentre nurse meetings and qualitative enquiry improved recruitment/data capture, and should be considered for future studies.
Further studies are required to identify interventions that improve stent efficacy and to address the multidimensional challenges of eating and nutrition in this patient population.
Current Controlled Trials ISRCTN12376468 and Clinicaltrials.gov NCT01915693.
This project was funded by the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) Health Technology Assessment programme and will be published in full in Health Technology Assessment; Vol. 25, No. 31. See the NIHR Journals Library website for further project information.
Bibliographical noteFunding Information:
The Radiotherapy after Oesophageal Cancer Stenting (ROCS) study was funded by NIHR as part of its HTA programme. The study was composed of:
The research reported in this issue of the journal was funded by the HTA programme as project number 10/50/49. The contractual start date was in March 2013. The draft report began editorial review in November 2019 and was accepted for publication in June 2020. The authors have been wholly responsible for all data collection, analysis and interpretation, and for writing up their work. The HTA editors and publisher have tried to ensure the accuracy of the authors’ report and would like to thank the reviewers for their constructive comments on the draft document. However, they do not accept liability for damages or losses arising from material published in this report.
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