Treatments for oral cancer
If you have oral cancer, your healthcare team will create a treatment plan just for you. It will be based on your health and specific information about the cancer. When deciding which treatments to offer for oral cancer, your healthcare team will consider:
- the size of the cancer
- the stage of the cancer
- the location of the cancer
- your overall health and ability to recover from surgery, radiation therapy or chemotherapy
- how a treatment will affect appearance and function (such as your speech and ability to swallow and chew)
- your personal preferences
Your healthcare team may include a number of healthcare professionals with special training in treating people with oral cancer, including:
- head and neck surgeon (also called an otolaryngologist or ear, nose and throat (ENT) doctor) (specializes in surgery of the mouth, jaw, face and neck)
- head and neck reconstructive surgeon (specializes in reconstruction around the head and neck and facial plastic surgery)
- oral and maxillofacial surgeon (specializes in surgery of the mouth, jaw and face)
- medical oncologist (specializes in treating cancer with drugs)
- radiation oncologist (specializes in treating cancer with radiation therapy)
- maxillofacial prosthodontist (specializes in replacing lost head and neck tissues and teeth with prosthetics)
- speech therapist (speech-language pathologist)
- registered dietitian
- social worker
Oral cancer can make it difficult to eat, so you may not eat enough and you may lose weight. Before you start treatment, a dietitian may do a nutritional assessment to see how oral cancer has affected your nutrition. If you aren’t getting good enough nutrition, you may need to have a feeding tube placed before you start treatment. This is to make sure you get enough nutrition to maintain your weight and strength during treatment.
It is important to assess if and how oral cancer has affected your speech. You will often see a speech therapist when you are first diagnosed and throughout your treatment to help manage any speech problems you may have as a result of oral cancer or its treatment.
It is also important to have a complete dental exam as you may need dental work done before treatment can start.
If you are a smoker, your healthcare team will talk to you about how they can help you quit. Smoking can limit how well your cancer treatment works, so it is important to quit before you start treatment.
Oral cancer is usually treated with surgery first. Surgery may be followed with radiation therapy or sometimes radiation therapy and chemotherapy. Reconstruction may be needed to repair structures in the mouth and jaw or to help with speech and swallowing. Reconstruction is planned at the same time as treatment. It is important for the healthcare team involved in reconstruction to assess and talk to you about what your expectations are before any surgery or other treatments are done.
American Society of Clinical Oncology. Oral and Oropharyngeal cancer. 2016: http://www.cancer.net/cancer-types/oral-and-oropharyngeal-cancer/view-all.
Cancer Care Ontario. Evidence-Based Series 5-3: The Management of Head and Neck Cancer in Ontario. 2009.
Cancer Research UK. The Mouth and Oropharynx. Cancer Research UK; 2016.
Koch WM, Stafford E, Chung C, Quon H . Cancer of the oral cavity. Harrison LB, Sessions RB, Kies MS. Head and Neck Cancer: A Multidisciplinary Approach. 4th ed. Philadelphia: Wolters Kluwer/Lippincott Williams & Wilkins; 2014: 16A:335-356.
National Cancer Institute. Lip and Oral Cavity Cancer Treatment (PDQ®). 2016.
National Comprehensive Cancer Network. NCCN Clinical Practice Guidelines in Oncology: Head and Neck Cancers (Version 1.2015). 2015.