Treatments for recurrent oral cancer

Recurrent oral cancer means that the cancer has come back after it has been treated. The following are treatment options for recurrent oral cancer. The treatment for recurrent cancer depends on where the cancer comes back and what treatments were used before. Your healthcare team will suggest treatments based on your needs and work with you to develop a treatment plan.


Surgery may be used to treat recurrent oral cancer. It may be used to remove a tumour that recurs locally or regionally.

Radiation therapy

You may be offered radiation therapy for recurrent oral cancer if radiation therapy was not previously used to treat the cancer.


You may be offered chemotherapy for recurrent oral cancer. If you haven’t had radiation therapy before, you may have chemotherapy along with radiation therapy (called chemoradiation).


You may be offered immunotherapy for recurrent oral cancer.

Pembrolizumab (Keytruda) may be used as a first-line therapy to treat unresectable recurrent oral cancer. It may be used with or without chemotherapy.

Nivolumab (Opdivo) may be used to treat recurrent oral cancer that stops responding to chemotherapy with drugs such as cisplatin or carboplatin.

If you can’t have or don’t want cancer treatment

You may want to consider a type of care to make you feel better without treating the cancer itself. This may be because the cancer treatments don’t work anymore, they’re not likely to improve your condition or they may cause side effects that are hard to cope with. There may also be other reasons why you can’t have or don’t want cancer treatment.

Talk to your healthcare team. They can help you choose care and treatment for advanced cancer.

Clinical trials

Talk to your doctor about clinical trials open to people with oral cancer in Canada. Clinical trials look at new ways to prevent, find and treat cancer. Find out more about clinical trials.

Expert review and references

  • Alberta Health Services. Oral Cavity Cancer Clinical Practice Guideline HN-002. Alberta Health Services; 2016.
  • American Cancer Society. Oral Cavity and Oropharyngeal Cancer. 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.