What Happens After Treatment for Oral Cavity and Oropharyngeal Cancers?

For some people with oral cavity or oropharyngeal cancer, treatment may remove or destroy the cancer. Completing treatment can be both stressful and exciting. You may be relieved to finish treatment, but find it hard not to worry about cancer growing or coming back. (When cancer comes back after treatment, it is called recurrence.) This is a very common concern in people who have had cancer.

It may take a while before your fears lessen. But it may help to know that many cancer survivors have learned to live with this uncertainty and are leading full lives. Our document Living With Uncertainty: The Fear of Cancer Recurrence gives more detailed information on this.

For other people, the cancer may never go away completely. These people may get regular treatments with chemotherapy, radiation therapy, or other therapies to help keep the cancer in check for as long as possible. Learning to live with cancer as more of a chronic disease can be difficult and very stressful. It has its own type of uncertainty. Our document Managing Cancer as a Chronic Illness talks more about this.

Follow-up care

After you have completed treatment, your doctors will still want to watch you closely. It is very important to go to all of your follow-up appointments. During these visits, your doctors will ask questions about any problems you are having and will examine you. Your doctor may also order lab tests or imaging tests (such as MRI or CT scans) to look for signs of cancer return. Your health care team will discuss which tests should be done and how often based on the type and initial stage of your cancer, the type of treatment you received, and the response to that treatment.

Patients with cancer of the oral cavity or oropharynx may develop recurrences or new cancers in the head and neck area or lungs. Therefore, they must be followed closely after treatment. Recurrences happen most often in the first 2 years after treatment, so patients are usually examined about every few months during the first 2 years and then less often after that.

For someone who was treated with radiation to the neck, blood tests to look at thyroid function may be needed as well.

With improvements in surgery and radiation therapy, the ability to control a patient’s main cancer has greatly improved. However, development of second cancers in the head and neck or lungs remains an important risk.

Many studies have found that the patient’s quality of life tends to get worse in the first few months after treatment. After that, however, if the patient has given up smoking and drinking alcohol, things tend to get better. Within a year, many patients are feeling reasonably well and happy.

Almost any cancer treatment can have side effects. Some may last for a few weeks to several months, but others can last the rest of your life. Don’t hesitate to tell your cancer care team about any symptoms or side effects that bother you so they can help you manage them.

It is very important to report any new symptoms to the doctor right away, because they may prompt your doctor to do tests that could help find recurrent cancer as early as possible, when the likelihood of successful treatment is greatest.

It’s important to keep health insurance. Tests and doctor visits cost a lot, and even though no one wants to think of their cancer coming back, this could happen.

If cancer does recur, treatment will depend on the location of the cancer and what treatments you’ve had before. For more information on how recurrent cancer is treated, see the section Treatment Options for Oral Cavity and Oropharyngeal Cancer by Stage. For more general information on dealing with a recurrence, you may also want to see the document Coping With Cancer Recurrence.

Problems with eating and nutrition

Cancers of the mouth and throat and their treatments can sometimes cause problems such as trouble swallowing, loss or change in taste, dry mouth, or even loss of teeth. This can make it hard to eat, which can lead to weight loss and weakness due to poor nutrition.

Some people may need to adjust what they eat during and after treatment. Some may even need a feeding tube placed into the stomach, at least for a short time during and after treatment. You may want to consult with a nutritionist to help find ways to meet your individual nutritional needs. If a dry mouth is making it hard to eat, your doctor may recommend a saliva substitute. This can help you maintain your weight and nutritional intake.

Speech and swallowing therapy

Oral cavity or oropharyngeal cancers and their treatments may affect a person’s speech and ability to swallow. A speech therapist may help with these. These experts are knowledgeable about speech and swallowing problems.

Seeing a new doctor

At some point after your cancer diagnosis and treatment, you may find yourself seeing a new doctor who does not know anything about your medical history. It is important that you be able to give your new doctor the details of your diagnosis and treatment. Gathering these details soon after treatment may be easier than trying to get them at some point in the future. Make sure you have this information handy:

  • A copy of your pathology report(s) from any biopsies or surgeries
  • If you had surgery, a copy of your operative report
  • If you stayed in the hospital, a copy of the discharge summary that doctors prepare when patients are sent home
  • Copies of imaging tests (CT or MRI scans, etc.), which can usually be stored on a CD or DVD.
  • If you were treated with radiation, a copy of the treatment
  • If you had chemotherapy (or targeted therapy), a list of the drugs, drug doses, and when you took them

The doctor may want copies of this information for his records, but always keep copies for yourself.

The American Cancer Society medical and editorial content team
Our team is made up of doctors and master's-prepared nurses with deep knowledge of cancer care as well as journalists, editors, and translators with extensive experience in medical writing.

Last Medical Review: July 16, 2014 Last Revised: August 8, 2016

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