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Oral Cancer

  • Posted: 12/23/2009

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Radiation Therapy
Targeted Therapy

People with early oral cancer may be treated with surgery or radiation therapy. People with advanced oral cancer may have a combination of treatments. For example, radiation therapy and chemotherapy are often given at the same time. Another treatment option is targeted therapy.

The choice of treatment depends mainly on your general health, where in your mouth or throat the cancer began, the size of the tumor, and whether the cancer has spread.

Many doctors encourage people with oral cancer to consider taking part in a clinical trial. Clinical trials are research studies testing new treatments. They are an important option for people with all stages of oral cancer. See the Taking Part in Cancer Research section.

Your doctor may refer you to a specialist, or you may ask for a referral. Specialists who treat oral cancer include:

Other health care professionals who work with the specialists as a team may include a dentist, plastic surgeon, reconstructive surgeon, speech pathologist, oncology nurse, registered dietitian, and mental health counselor.

Your health care team can describe your treatment choices, the expected results of each, and the possible side effects. You'll want to consider how treatment may affect eating, swallowing, and talking, and whether treatment will change the way you look. You and your health care team can work together to develop a treatment plan that meets your needs.

Oral cancer and its treatment can lead to other health problems. For example, radiation therapy and chemotherapy for oral cancer can cause dental problems. That's why it's important to get your mouth in good condition before cancer treatment begins. See a dentist for a thorough exam one month, if possible, before starting cancer treatment to give your mouth time to heal after needed dental work.

Before, during, and after cancer treatment, you can have supportive care to control pain and other symptoms, to relieve the side effects of therapy, and to help you cope with the feelings that a diagnosis of cancer can bring. You can get information about supportive care on the NCI Web site at http://www. and from the NCI Cancer Information Service at 1-800-4-CANCER or LiveHelp.

You may want to ask your doctor these questions before your treatment begins:

  • What is the stage of the disease? Has the oral cancer spread? If so, where?
  • What is the goal of treatment? What are my treatment choices? Which do you recommend for me? Will I have more than one type of treatment?
  • What are the expected benefits of each type of treatment?
  • What are the risks and possible side effects of each treatment? How can side effects be managed?
  • Should I see a dentist before treatment begins? Can you recommend a dentist who has experience working with people who have oral cancer?
  • Will I need to stay in the hospital? If so, for how long?
  • If I have pain, how will it be controlled?
  • What will the treatment cost? Will my insurance cover it?
  • How will treatment affect my normal activities?
  • Would a clinical trial (research study) be appropriate for me?
  • How often will I need checkups?
  • Can you recommend other doctors who could give me a second opinion about my treatment options?


Surgery to remove the tumor in the mouth or throat is a common treatment for oral cancer. Sometimes the surgeon also removes lymph nodes in the neck. Other tissues in the mouth and neck may be removed as well. You may have surgery alone or in combination with radiation therapy.

It takes time to heal after surgery, and the time needed to recover is different for each person. You may have pain for the first few days after surgery. However, medicine can usually control the pain. Before surgery, you should discuss the plan for pain relief with your doctor or nurse. After surgery, your doctor can adjust the plan if you need more pain relief.

It's common to feel tired or weak for a while after surgery. Also, surgery may cause tissues in your face to swell. This swelling usually goes away within a few weeks. However, removing lymph nodes can result in swelling that lasts a long time.

Surgery to remove a small tumor in your mouth may not cause any lasting problems. For a larger tumor, however, the surgeon may remove part of the palate, tongue, or jaw. This surgery may change your ability to chew, swallow, or talk. Also, your face may look different after surgery. You may have reconstructive or plastic surgery to rebuild the bones or tissues of the mouth. (See the Reconstruction section.)

You may want to ask your doctor these questions before having surgery:

  • Do you recommend surgery to remove the tumor? If so, do I need any lymph nodes removed? Will other tissues in my mouth or neck need to be removed?
  • What is the goal of surgery?
  • How will I feel after surgery? How long will I be in the hospital?
  • What are the risks of surgery?
  • Will I have trouble swallowing, eating, or speaking? Will I need to see a specialist for help?
  • Will I look different after surgery? Where will the scars be?
  • Will I need reconstructive or plastic surgery? When can that be done?
  • Will I lose my teeth? Can they be replaced? How soon?

Radiation Therapy

Radiation therapy uses high-energy rays to kill cancer cells. It's an option for small tumors or for people who can't have surgery. Or, it may be used before surgery to shrink the tumor. It also may be used after surgery to destroy cancer cells that may remain in the area.

Doctors use two types of radiation therapy to treat oral cancer. Some people with oral cancer have both types:

  • External radiation therapy: The radiation comes from a machine. Some treatment centers offer IMRT, which uses a computer to more closely target the oral tumor to lessen the damage to healthy tissue. You may go to the hospital or clinic once or twice a day, generally 5 days a week for several weeks. Each treatment takes only a few minutes.
  • Internal radiation therapy (implant radiation therapy or brachytherapy): Internal radiation therapy isn't commonly used for oral cancer. The radiation comes from radioactive material in seeds, wires, or tubes put directly in the mouth or throat tissue. You may need to stay in the hospital for several days. Usually the radioactive material is removed before you go home.
The side effects of radiation therapy depend mainly on the amount of radiation given. Radiation therapy may cause mouth and dental problems:
  • Sore throat or mouth: Radiation therapy can cause painful ulcers and inflammation in the mouth and throat. Your doctor can suggest medicines to help control the pain. Your doctor also may suggest special rinses to numb the throat and mouth to help relieve the soreness. If your pain continues, you can ask your doctor about stronger medicines.
  • Dry mouth: A dry mouth can make it hard for you to eat, talk, and swallow. It can also lead to tooth decay. You may find it helpful to drink lots of water, suck ice chips or sugar-free hard candy, and use a saliva substitute to moisten your mouth.
  • Tooth decay: Cavities may be a significant problem after radiation therapy. Good mouth care can help you keep your teeth and gums healthy and can help you feel better.
    • Doctors usually suggest that people gently brush their teeth, gums, and tongue with an extra-soft toothbrush and fluoride toothpaste after every meal and before bed. If brushing hurts, you can soften the bristles in warm water.
    • Your dentist may suggest that you use fluoride gel on your teeth before, during, and after radiation treatment.
    • It also helps to rinse your mouth several times a day with a solution made from 1/4 teaspoon of baking soda and 1/4 teaspoon of salt in one quart of warm water. After you rinse with this solution, follow with a plain water rinse.
  • Sore or bleeding gums: It's important to brush and floss teeth gently. You may want to avoid brushing and flossing areas that are sore or bleeding. To protect your gums from damage, avoid using toothpicks.
  • Infection: Dry mouth and damage to the lining of your mouth from radiation therapy can cause infection to develop. Check your mouth every day for sores or other changes, and tell your doctor or nurse about any mouth problems.
  • Delayed healing after dental care: It's important to have all needed dental treatment completed one month before radiation therapy to allow time for the mouth to heal. Dental treatment after radiation therapy can be complicated by slow healing and the risk of infection.
  • Jaw stiffness: Radiation therapy can affect the chewing muscles and make it difficult for you to open your mouth. Ask your health care team to show you how to prevent or reduce stiffness by exercising your jaw muscles. For example, they may suggest opening and closing the mouth as far as possible (without causing pain) 20 times in a row, 3 times a day.
  • Denture problems: Radiation therapy can change the tissues in your mouth so that dentures don't fit anymore. Because of soreness and dry mouth, some people may not be able to wear dentures for as long as one year after radiation therapy. After the tissues heal completely and your mouth is no longer sore, your dentist may need to refit or replace your dentures.
In addition to mouth and dental problems, radiation therapy aimed at the head and neck may cause other problems:
  • Fatigue: You may become very tired, especially in the later weeks of radiation therapy. Resting is important, but doctors usually advise people to stay as active as they can.
  • Changes in how food tastes and smells: Radiation therapy for oral cancer may cause food to taste or smell different. These changes can last for several months, especially if radiation therapy is given at the same time as chemotherapy.
  • Changes in voice quality: Your voice may be weak at the end of the day. It may also be affected by changes in the weather. Radiation therapy directed at the neck may cause your larynx (voice box) to swell, causing voice changes and the feeling of a lump in your throat. Your doctor may suggest medicine to reduce this swelling.
  • Skin changes in the treated area: The skin in the treated area may become red or dry. Good skin care is important. It's helpful to expose this area to the air while protecting it from the sun. Also, avoid wearing clothes that rub the treated area, and don't shave the treated area. You should not use lotions or creams in the treated area without your doctor's advice. These skin changes should go away when treatment ends, but a long-term effect is that hair may not grow back in the moustache or beard area.
  • Weight loss: You may lose weight if you have eating problems from a sore throat and trouble swallowing. Your health care team may suggest a feeding tube to help prevent weight loss. See the Nutrition section.
  • Changes in the thyroid: Radiation therapy can affect your thyroid (an organ in your neck beneath the voice box). If your thyroid does not make enough thyroid hormone, you may feel tired, gain weight, feel cold, and have dry skin and hair. Your doctor can check the level of thyroid hormone with a blood test. If the level is low, you may need to take thyroid hormone pills.

Some side effects in the mouth go away after radiation therapy ends, but others last a long time. A few side effects (such as dry mouth) may never go away. Although the side effects of radiation therapy can be upsetting, your doctor can usually treat or control them. It helps to report any problems that you are having so that your doctor can work with you to relieve them.

You may find it helpful to read the NCI booklet Radiation Therapy and You.

You may want to ask your doctor these questions before having radiation therapy:

  • What is the goal of this treatment?
  • When will the treatments begin? When will they end?
  • What are the risks and side effects of this treatment? What can I do about them?
  • How will I feel during therapy? What can I do to take care of myself?
  • Will I need a special diet? For how long?
  • How will my mouth and face look afterward?
  • Are there any long-term effects?


Chemotherapy uses drugs to kill cancer cells. The drugs that treat oral cancer are usually given through a vein (intravenous). The drugs enter the bloodstream and travel throughout your body.

Chemotherapy and radiation therapy are often given at the same time. You may receive chemotherapy in an outpatient part of the hospital, at the doctor's office, or at home. Some people need to stay in the hospital during treatment.

Chemotherapy and radiation therapy can cause some of the same side effects, including painful mouth and gums, dry mouth, infection, and changes in taste. Some anticancer drugs can cause bleeding in the mouth and a deep pain that feels like a toothache.

The side effects depend mainly on which drugs are given and how much. Chemotherapy kills fast-growing cancer cells, but the drugs can also harm normal cells that divide rapidly:

  • Blood cells: When drugs lower the levels of healthy blood cells, you're more likely to get infections, bruise or bleed easily, and feel weak and tired. Your health care team will check for low levels of blood cells. If your levels are low, your health care team may stop the chemotherapy for a while or reduce the dose of the drug.
  • Cells in hair roots: Chemotherapy may cause hair loss. If you lose your hair, it will grow back, but it may change in color and texture.
  • Cells that line the digestive tract: Chemotherapy can cause a poor appetite, nausea and vomiting, diarrhea, or mouth and lip sores. Your health care team can give you medicines and suggest other ways to help with these problems.

Some drugs used for oral cancer can cause tingling or numbness in the hands or feet. You may have these problems only during treatment or for a short time after treatment ends.

You may wish to read the NCI booklet Chemotherapy and You.

Targeted Therapy

Some people with oral cancer receive a type of drug known as targeted therapy. It may be given along with radiation therapy or chemotherapy.

Cetuximab (Erbitux) was the first targeted therapy approved for oral cancer. Cetuximab binds to oral cancer cells and interferes with cancer cell growth and the spread of cancer. You may receive cetuximab through a vein once a week for several weeks at the doctor's office, hospital, or clinic.

During treatment, your health care team will watch for signs of problems. Some people get medicine to prevent a possible allergic reaction. Side effects may include rash, fever, headache, vomiting, and diarrhea. These effects usually become milder after the first treatment.

You may find it helpful to read the NCI fact sheet Targeted Cancer Therapies.

You may want to ask your doctor these questions before having chemotherapy or targeted therapy:

  • Which drug or drugs will I have?
  • What are the expected benefits of treatment?
  • What are the risks and possible side effects of treatment? What can I do about them?
  • When will treatment start? When will it end?
  • How will treatment affect my normal activities?

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