Treatment Options

What are the most common oral cancer treatment options?

  • Common oral cancer treatment options for cases in the early stages often include surgery and radiation therapy.
  • Oral cancer treatment options for cases in advanced stages often include a combination of surgery, chemotherapy and radiation.

Surgery as an Oral Cancer Treatment

If surgery is recommended for oral cancer treatment the cancerous tumor plus surrounding tissue from the mouth or jaw is often removed. In more severe cases sometimes the lymph nodes, voice box, tongue or bones in the mouth must be removed making the patient unable to speak or eat normally ever again

Radiation as an Oral Cancer Treatment

Radiation is often the recommended oral cancer treatment over surgery if it will help preserve a patient’s ability to swallow and speak. It is also commonly used after a surgery to eliminate any remaining cancer cells or for patients who cannot have surgery. Radiation therapy is localized and targets the cancerous area(s). With this type of treatment high energy rays are used to kill cancer cells. Doctors treat oral cancer with two different types of radiation therapy which include:

  • External radiation– This is the most common type of radiation for treating oral cancers in the head or neck. External radiation is given by a machine that points beams of radiation towards the tumor. One side effect of this type of radiation for oral cancer treatment is that the radiation also effects healthy cells close to the tumor which can lead to infection, a sore mouth or throat, skin burns, painful swallowing, tooth decay, dry mouth or nose and delayed healing after dental care. This type of treatment takes approximately 15-20 minutes per treatment and is usually given 5 days a week for 6-8 weeks.
  • Internal radiation– This type of radiation is sometimes used for treating oral cancers in the lip, oral cavity and oropharynx. It is administered through a radioactive material that is implanted inside the body. Radiation is released over time and is more precise at treating a very specific area. With this option side effects are decreased, but the probability of the cancer coming back is higher. Also, a patient is considered radioactive and is only allowed to spend a few minutes a day with loved ones, which can be a problem if the patient cannot care for his or herself.


Chemotherapy as an Oral Cancer Treatment

Chemotherapy is a medication given into a vein or taken by mouth to kill cancer cells. Chemo is usually part of the recommended oral cancer treatment plan for advanced oral cancer cases that have spread to other areas of the body. It can be given before a surgery to shrink a tumor and it can also be given after a surgery to kill any remaining cancer cells. The medicine enters your bloodstream and then travels throughout the body targeting cells that are rapidly dividing. While this is intended to kill cancer cells, it can also affect healthy cells leading to unwanted side effects that can include:

  • Hair Loss
  • Mouth Sores
  • Loss of appetite
  • Nausea
  • Diarrheas
  • Increase of infection
  • Fatigue
  • Numbness
  • Nerve damage
  • Hearing loss

Multidisciplinary Teams in Oral Cancer Treatment

In many cases for complete oral cancer treatment a team made up of professionals from multiple medical and health backgrounds will be a part of the patients recovery. This approach gives the patient the best all around care and the best quality of life. This multidisciplinary team could include (but is not limited to):

  • Oral Surgeon- A surgeon who usually treats diseases in the mouth, teeth and jaws.
  • Ear, Nose and Throat Doctors- A surgeon who usually treats diseases of the head and neck
  • Pathologists- A doctor who focuses on the diagnosis of the diseases, often through biopsies or body fluids taken from the patient.
  • Medical Oncologists- A doctor who treats oral cancer with medicines, often chemotherapy
  • Radiation Oncologists- A doctor who treats oral cancer with radiation
  • Dentists- Diagnose and treat problems with the teeth and tissue in the oral cavity. They often catch the first signs of oral cancer and can refer you to a specialist.
  • Plastic Surgeons- Can reconstruct parts of the face that may have been removed during surgery to improve functions and the aesthetic of the patient.
  • Dietitians- Work alongside other health professionals to develop an individual nutrition plan to addresses any specific health problems or physical requirements of a patient
  • Social Workers- Can help a patient locate resources to handle family and financial responsibilities that will arise during recovery.
  • Nurses- Provide care for patients and their families. They can offer assistance with pain and the side effects of oral cancer treatment.
  • Physical Therapists- Often work with a patient to rehabilitate any part of the face or body that may have been affected by surgery or treatment to maximize its potential
  • Speech Therapists- In cases where speech is affected, they can help the patient regain speech or learn alternative ways of communication
  • Psychologists- Help a patient deal emotionally with the changes made to his or her body and lifestyle.

What are clinical trials?

Clinical trials are controlled research studies that are done with volunteer patients. Clinical trials are an important part of mouth cancer treatment and are the only way that new advancements are made in treating mouth cancer. If your doctor believes a clinical trial could be right for you he or she will discuss the benefits and risks involved. Through a clinical trial you may have access to the newest treatments available for your mouth cancer. If you ever begin to feel the trial is not for you, you can quit it at any time for any reason. For more information on available clinical trials visit the links below.

Links to all our pages on oral cancer:


Cancer Facts and Figures 2012. The American Cancer Society. Accessed January 3, 2012.

Head and Neck Cancers: The Basics. Accessed January 17, 2012

Oral Cavity and Oropharyngeal Cancer. American Cancer Society. Accessed January 4, 2012.

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    All content on this site is for general information purposes only. It is not and should not be considered medical advice or used in place of the advice of a medical professional. Always seek the advice of a doctor or other professional for any medical condition.