Virginia Commonwealth University

VCU Massey Cancer Center

Treatment

Specific treatment for oral cancer will be determined by your physician based on:

  • Your age, overall health and medical history.
  • Extent of the disease.
  • Your tolerance for specific medications, procedures or therapies.
  • Expectations for the course of the disease.
  • Your opinion or preference.

Treatment may include:

  • Surgery – different surgery techniques are used to remove specific types of oral tumors, including:

    • Primary tumor resection – removal of the entire tumor and surrounding area of tissue.
    • Maxillectomy – removal of the tumor, including part or all of the hard palate (roof of the mouth), if bone is involved.
    • Mohs’ micrographic surgery – removal of the tumor in “slices” to minimize amount of normal tissue removed (may be considered when the cancer involves the lip).
    • Laryngectomy – removal of a large tumor of the tongue or oropharynx, which may involve removing the larynx (voice box).
    • Neck dissection – if cancer has spread to the lymph nodes in the neck, these lymph nodes may need to be removed as well.
  • Radiation therapy – treatment that uses high-energy rays that damage cancer cells and halts the spread of cancer. Radiation therapy is very localized, aimed at only the area where the cancer is present. Radiation therapy may be administered externally with a machine, or internally with radioactive materials.
  • Chemotherapy – medications that kill cancer cells. Chemotherapy has the ability to interfere with the cancer cell’s replication. Chemotherapy may be used in combination with surgery and radiation therapy.

Preparing for surgery

If surgery is needed to treat the oral cancer, the National Cancer Institute recommends asking the following questions:

  • What type of operation will I undergo?
  • What can I expect after surgery?
  • How will any pain be treated?
  • Will I have trouble eating?
  • Will I have any scarring?
  • Will there be any long-term effects or permanent physical changes from surgery?
  • If I need plastic surgery, how soon can that be done following the initial surgery?
  • Will I need speech therapy?
  • When can I resume my normal activities?

What are the side effects of oral cancer treatment?

Side effects of treatment for oral cancer vary, depending on the type of treatment and the area being treated. Side effects can be temporary or permanent. The following side effects are some of the more common seen in oral cancer treatment:

  • Swelling from surgery.
  • Sore mouth.
  • Difficulty chewing, swallowing or talking.
  • Changes to appearance, temporarily or permanently.
  • Weight loss due to a sore mouth, which may make eating difficult.
  • Inability to wear dentures for a period of time.

Depending on the type of treatment, patients may experience other side effects:

  • Fatigue
  • Dental problems
  • Lowered immune system
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Mouth sores
  • Lack of appetite

Rehabilitation after oral cancer

Rehabilitation may vary from person-to-person depending on the type of oral cancer treatment, and the location and extent of the cancer. Rehabilitation may include:

  • Dietary counseling – many patients recovering from oral cancer surgery have difficulty eating, so it is often recommended that they eat small meals consisting of soft, moist foods.
  • Surgery – some patients may benefit from reconstructive or plastic surgery to restore the bones or tissues of the mouth, returning a more normal appearance.
  • Prosthesis – if reconstructive or plastic surgery is not an option, patients may benefit from dental or facial-part prosthesis to restore a more normal appearance. Special training may be needed to learn to use a prosthetic device.
  • Speech therapy – if a patient experiences difficulty in speaking following oral cancer treatment, speech therapy may help the patient relearn the process.