Palliative Treatment for Oral Cavity and Oropharyngeal Cancer

Many treatments for oral cavity and oropharyngeal cancer are intended to remove or to destroy the cancer cells or slow their growth. For patients, maintaining their quality of life for as long as possible is another important goal of treatment. This is true for people being treated to try to cure the cancer and for people whose cancer is too advanced to be cured.

Supportive care can help ease physical symptoms from the cancer or its treatment, can help people cope with feelings they might have related to the diagnosis, and can also support caregivers. Supportive care works best if it is added to a person’s care early on in their diagnosis, especially for those people with advanced cancer. Some studies show it may even help people live longer.

Pain management and oral cavity and oropharyngeal cancer

Pain is a significant concern for many people with cancer. It can almost always be treated with milder drugs like ibuprofen or acetaminophen or, if needed, with stronger medicines like morphine or drugs like it (known as opioids). Sometimes, procedures like surgery, a nerve block, or radiation might be options to lessen pain. For more on pain, what can be done about it, and how to keep track of it, see Cancer Pain.

Nutrition and oral cavity and oropharyngeal cancer

Keeping healthy through nutrition is another important concern for people with oral cavity or oropharyngeal cancers. Both the cancer and its treatment can make it hard to swallow and to eat or drink. If this is the case, a feeding tube may be needed. (See Surgery for Oral and Oropharyngeal Cancer.) This tube will most likely be needed during treatment, but in some cases it might need to be left in longer. For more about what to eat during cancer treatment, see Nutrition for People with Cancer.

There are many other ways your cancer care team can help you maintain your quality of life and help control your symptoms. But you have to tell your team how you're feeling and what symptoms you're having. Some people don’t like to disappoint their doctors by telling them they're not feeling well. Others just don't want to complain. This is not helpful to you or your treatment goals. Tell your doctor how you really feel. Talking about the symptoms you're having lets your doctor give treatments or medicines that can help relieve them which can help you handle treatment better. You will probably feel better and be able to focus on the things that are important to you.

For more information on palliative care, see Palliative or Supportive Care.

To learn more about side effects and how to manage them, see Managing Cancer-related Side Effects.

The American Cancer Society medical and editorial content team

Our team is made up of doctors and oncology certified nurses with deep knowledge of cancer care as well as journalists, editors, and translators with extensive experience in medical writing.

Ferrell BR, Temel JS, Temin S, et al. Integration of Palliative Care Into Standard Oncology Care: American Society of Clinical Oncology Clinical Practice Guideline Update. J Clin Oncol. 2017;35(1):96-112. doi:10.1200/JCO.2016.70.1474.

Leeman JE, Katabi N, Wong RJ, Lee NY and Romesser PB. Ch. 65 - Cancer of the Head and Neck. In: Niederhuber JE, Armitage JO, Doroshow JH, Kastan MB, Tepper JE, eds. Abeloff’s Clinical Oncology. 6th ed. Philadelphia, Pa. Elsevier; 2020.

National Cancer Institute. Palliative Care in Cancer. October 20, 2017. Accessed at https://www.cancer.gov/about-cancer/advanced-cancer/care-choices/palliative-care-fact-sheet on September 24, 2020.

National Comprehensive Cancer Network (NCCN). NCCN Clinical Practice Guidelines in Oncology. Head and Neck Cancers. Version 2.2020 -- June 09, 2020. Accessed at www.nccn.org/professionals/physician_gls/pdf/head-and-neck.pdf on September 21, 2020.

Last Revised: March 23, 2021

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