Palliative Treatment for Oral Cavity and Oropharyngeal Cancer

Most of this document discusses ways to remove or to destroy cancer cells or to slow their growth. But maintaining a patient’s quality of life 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. If the goal of treatment is a cure, palliative treatments can help ease symptoms from the cancer treatment itself. If the cancer is advanced, palliative treatment may play an even larger role, helping to keep the person comfortable and maintain quality of life for as long as possible.

Pain is a significant concern for many patients with cancer. It can almost always be treated effectively with milder drugs like ibuprofen or acetaminophen or, if needed, with stronger medicines like morphine or similar drugs (known as opioids). Taking these drugs does not mean a person will become addicted. Many studies have shown that people with cancer who take opioids for pain as their doctor directed typically do not become addicted. For more information on pain, what can be done about it, and how to keep track of it, see the Cancer Pain section of our website.

Nutrition is another important concern for people with head and neck cancers such as oral cavity or oropharyngeal cancers. Both the cancer and its treatment may make it hard to swallow. If this affects how a person eats or drinks, they may need to have a feeding tube placed. (This was discussed in Surgery for Oral and Oropharyngeal Cancer.) This tube will most likely be needed for a short time during treatment, but in some cases it may need to be left in longer. For more information on what to eat during cancer treatment, see the Nutrition for People with Cancer section of our website.

There are many other ways your doctor can help you maintain your quality of life and control your symptoms. But this means that you have to tell your doctor how you are feeling and what symptoms you are having. Some people don’t like to disappoint their doctors by telling them they are not feeling well. This does no one any good. Your doctor wants to know how you really feel. Talking about the symptoms you are having lets your doctor give treatments that can relieve the symptoms. Getting effective treatment can help you feel better and let you concentrate on the things that are important to you.

For more information on palliative care and getting help with side effects, see the Palliative or Supportive Care section of our website.

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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