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Despite recent advances in radiation therapy and chemotherapy, surgical procedures remain the primary modality of head and neck cancer therapy. Adequate surgical resection frequently requires the removal of significant amounts of tissue. The primary concern of the reconstructive surgeon is the restoration of a functional aerodigestive tract. In addition to the prolongation of life, the quality of that life should be taken into consideration.The records of 25 patients undergoing oropharyngeal reconstruction for tumors stage 3 or 4 in the 4-year period from 1983 to 1986 were reviewed. After surgical extirpation, reconstruction was performed using either a pectoralis major musculocutaneous flap or a microvascular free flap.Results were evaluated with emphasis on both the intraoperative and postoperative course. The length of the procedure, time of initiation of oral feedings, time of decannulation, postoperative complications, time of discharge, and quality of life after discharge were considered. Those patients reconstructed with microvascular free flaps were able to tolerate oral feedings sooner and were discharged sooner than those patients reconstructed with pectoralis musculocutaneous flaps. In addition, the patients with pectoralis flaps were twice as likely to have local complications (e.g., superficial wound infection, fistula) as those with free flaps. The quality of the patient's life with respect to deglutition and intelligibility of speech was likewise better for those patients reconstructed with microvascular free flaps. The explanation of these results is presented.