Mouth Cancer Treatment

What are the most common options for mouth cancer treatment?

The three most common mouth cancer treatment options include surgery, radiation and chemotherapy, although targeted therapy (which is actually a type of chemo) is becoming more common. Surgery is often the first treatment for mouth cancer, but it is often followed by radiation or a combination of radiation and chemotherapy.

Surgery for Mouth Cancer Treatment

Surgery is often the preferred mouth cancer treatment because radiation can damage the bones in the mouth. A few of the common surgeries for mouth cancer treatment include: the removal of part or all of the jaw bone (called a mandibulectomy), the removal of part of all of the bone in the roof of the mouth (called a maxillectomy) and the removal of lymph nodes in the neck (called a neck dissection). Not only are surgeries performed to remove tumors and cancerous tissue (which is very common), but they can also be done:

  • To remove tissue that could become cancerous
  • To remove tissue in order to diagnose the type and stage of cancer
  • To more accurately determine the extent and amount the disease has spread
  • To treat complications as a result of the mouth cancer
  • To reconstruct or restore the appearance of the body or function of an organ following the primary surgery

Radiation for Mouth Cancer Treatment

If radiation therapy is used for mouth cancer treatment beams of radiation are used to target, injure and destroy the cells in a specific area. Radiation damages the DNA in each cell and makes it impossible for them to grow and the cancer to spread. One problem with radiation is that it kills both normal, healthy cells and the cancerous cells and it can damage the bones in the mouth. However, healthy cells are able to repair themselves and will eventually return to normal. Radiation is most often the recommended mouth cancer treatment for cases where surgery will damage a patient’s ability to speak or swallow normally. Radiation is also used to:

  • Treat localized solid tumors
  • Reduce the size of a tumor before surgery
  • Treat tissue after surgery to remove any cancer cells that may remain

Chemotherapy for Mouth Cancer Treatment

Chemotherapy is used to kill cancer cell in the mouth. It is usually given through a vein and travels through the blood stream keeping cancer cells from being able to grow and reproduce. It is usually given for more advanced cases of mouth cancer, especially those that have already spread to other parts of the body. Depending on the type of chemotherapy drug used it will do one of three things:

  1. Damage the structure of the DNA in a cancer cell’s nucleus so that it no longer reproduces new cells
  2. Block the cell from being able to make new DNA strands, which keeps the cancer cells from being able to reproduce
  3. Stop cancerous cells from being able to divide into two cells

Targeted therapy as a mouth cancer treatment

Targeted therapy is a newer type of mouth cancer treatment that is able to more accurately attack cancer cells, while doing less damage to healthy cells. Targeted therapy is still considered a type of chemotherapy, but is often referred to separately because it has different (and less harmful) side effects than standard chemo. Like other types of chemo, it is taken by pill or through a vein. Sometimes targeted therapy is used on its own and sometimes it is used in coordination with surgery, radiation, and/or other types of chemotherapy. Some of the side effects of targeted therapy include:

  • Allergic reaction
  • Skin rash
  • High blood pressure
  • Problems with bleeding and clots
  • Wounds don’t heal properly
  • Diarrhea
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Constipation
  • Mouth sores
  • Shortness of breath
  • Cough
  • Fatigue
  • Headaches

It is important to notify your doctor about any side effects or changes in your body that you notice as a result of treatment. Many of these side effects can be treated and it is important that your doctor knows how the medication is affecting your body. Click on the links below for more information on targeted therapy.

Targeted Therapy from the American Cancer Society:

Targeted Therapy from NCI:

Links to all our pages with information on mouth cancer:

Mouth Cancer

Mouth Cancer Symptoms

Mouth Cancer Causes

Mouth Cancer Prevention

Mouth Cancer Pictures

Mouth Cancer Resources– This page provides additional links to other sites with information, research and articles on mouth cancer


A Team Approach To Treating Head and Neck Cancer. Cancer Care. Accessed January 18, 2012.

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

Targeted Therapy. American Cancer Society. Accessed January 16, 2012.

Treatment. The Oral Cancer Foundation. Accessed January 18, 2012.

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