Oral Cavity and Oropharyngeal Cancer

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Treating Oral Cavity and Oropharyngeal Cancer TOPICS

How are oral cavity and oropharyngeal cancers treated?

General treatment information

After the cancer is found and staged, your doctor will discuss treatment choices with you. Based on the stage and location of the tumor, you may have different types of doctors on your treatment team. These doctors may include:

  • An otolaryngologist (also known as an ear, nose, and throat, or ENT doctor): a surgeon who treats certain diseases of the head and neck.
  • An oral and maxillofacial surgeon: a dental surgeon who treats diseases of the mouth, teeth, and jaws.
  • A radiation oncologist: a doctor who treats cancer with radiation therapy.
  • A medical oncologist: a doctor who treats cancer with medicines such as chemotherapy or targeted therapy.

Many other specialists may be involved in your care as well, including nurse practitioners, nurses, nutrition specialists, social workers, speech therapists, and other health professionals.

It is important to discuss all of your treatment options, including goals and possible side effects, with your doctors to help make the decision that best fits your needs. It’s also very important to ask questions if there is anything you’re not sure about. You can find some good questions to ask in the section “What should you ask your doctor about oral cavity and oropharyngeal cancer?” If time permits, it is often a good idea to get a second opinion. A second opinion can provide you with more information and help you feel confident about your chosen treatment plan.

The main treatment options for people with oral and oropharyngeal cancers are:

These may be used either alone or in combination, depending on the stage and location of the tumor. In general, surgery is the first treatment for cancers of the oral cavity, and may be followed by radiation or combined chemotherapy and radiation. Oropharyngeal cancers are usually treated with a combination of chemotherapy and radiation.

It is important to take time and think about all of your choices. When you choose a treatment plan, consider your overall health, the type and stage of the cancer, the chances of curing the disease, and the possible impact of the treatment on important functions like speech, chewing, and swallowing.

Thinking about taking part in a clinical trial

Clinical trials are carefully controlled research studies that are done to get a closer look at promising new treatments or procedures. Clinical trials are one way to get state-of-the art cancer treatment. In some cases they may be the only way to get access to newer treatments. They are also the best way for doctors to learn better methods to treat cancer. Still, they are not right for everyone.

If you would like to learn more about clinical trials that might be right for you, start by asking your doctor if your clinic or hospital conducts clinical trials. You can also call our clinical trials matching service at 1-800-303-5691 for a list of studies that meet your medical needs, or see “Clinical Trials” to learn more.

Considering complementary and alternative methods

You may hear about alternative or complementary methods that your doctor hasn’t mentioned to treat your cancer or relieve symptoms. These methods can include vitamins, herbs, and special diets, or other methods such as acupuncture or massage, to name a few.

Complementary methods refer to treatments that are used along with your regular medical care. Alternative treatments are used instead of a doctor’s medical treatment. Although some of these methods might be helpful in relieving symptoms or helping you feel better, many have not been proven to work. Some might even be dangerous.

Be sure to talk to your cancer care team about any method you are thinking about using. They can help you learn what is known (or not known) about the method, which can help you make an informed decision. See Complementary and Alternative Medicine to learn more.

Help getting through cancer treatment

Your cancer care team will be your first source of information and support, but there are other resources for help when you need it. Hospital- or clinic-based support services are an important part of your care. These might include nursing or social work services, financial aid, nutritional advice, rehab, or spiritual help.

The American Cancer Society also has programs and services – including rides to treatment, lodging, support groups, and more – to help you get through treatment. Call our National Cancer Information Center at 1-800-227-2345 and speak with one of our trained specialists on call 24 hours a day, every day.

The next few sections describe the various types of treatments and how they are used for oral cavity and oropharyngeal cancers. This is followed by a description of the most common approaches used for these cancers, based on their stage and where they started.

The treatment information given here is not official policy of the American Cancer Society and is not intended as medical advice to replace the expertise and judgment of your cancer care team. It is intended to help you and your family make informed decisions, together with your doctor. Your doctor may have reasons for suggesting a treatment plan different from these general treatment options. Don't hesitate to ask him or her questions about your treatment options.

Last Medical Review: 07/16/2014
Last Revised: 01/27/2016