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What to Know First about Your Treatment Choices for Oral Cancer

Doctors can treat oral cancer. Your treatment depends on each of these factors:

  • Type of oral cancer you have

  • Size and location of the main tumor

  • Whether the cancer cells have spread to other parts of your body, based on imaging and laboratory tests

  • Your general health

  • Your age

Oral cancer is often curable, especially if it is found early. Treatment can also help control oral cancer, meaning it may help control symptoms or reduce its spread.

Once you know the type and stage of oral cancer you have, it's time to decide on a treatment plan. This section will help you understand your treatment options and what's best for you. Talking about your treatment choices will be one of the most important meetings that you'll have with your doctor.

It may take some time to choose the best plan. Talk with your doctor about how much time you can take to explore your options before you must make a decision. You may want to talk with your family and friends, and you may want to consider getting a second opinion. In fact, some insurance companies require a second opinion for such diagnoses. According to the American Cancer Society, it's rare that the time it will take to get a second opinion will have a negative impact on your treatment. The peace of mind a second opinion provides may be well worth the effort. 

Understanding the goals of treatment

Treatment for oral cancer may have these goals:

  • Remove or kill the cancer cells as quickly as possible, while doing as little damage as possible to nearby areas 

  • Kill any cells that may have spread

  • Control further spread of cancer cells

  • Relieve symptoms caused by the cancer 

Types of treatment for oral cancer

There are several ways to treat oral cancer:

  • Surgery. Most people with oral cancer have surgery first. There are several types of surgery. The kind you have depends on the location of the tumor. The goal is to take out the tumor. In some cases, this may cure the cancer. Depending on the location of the tumor, you may need reconstructive surgery as well as surgery to remove the tumor.

  • Radiation treatment. This is the use of high powered rays to kill cancer cells. You may have external radiation. For it, radiation is directed to your skin above the site of the tumor from a machine. Or you may have internal radiation. For it, the doctor implants radioactive rods or pellets in or near the tumor. Radiation is often used before or after surgery. In some cases, you may have radiation alone or along with chemotherapy as your only treatment. For more advanced cancers, radiation may be used to help control symptoms. 

  • Chemotherapy. This treatment uses drugs to kill cancer cells. You may take one or more drugs. Chemotherapy is often used for more advanced cancers, sometimes along with radiation therapy.  

  • Cetuximab. This treatment is a monoclonal antibody. It mimics part of your immune system, targeting the part of cancer cells that allows them to grow and divide. It may be used in all stages of oral cancer. 

Your doctor may suggest that you get more than one type of treatment. Getting two or more treatment types is called combination treatment or combination modality treatment.

For instance, you may have surgery and chemotherapy. Or you may have surgery and radiation, or radiation and chemotherapy. You may even have all three types of care.

The order that you get treatments has a specific name. For instance, when you have a treatment before having surgery, it is called neoadjuvant treatment. You may have chemotherapy and/or radiation before surgery. These help shrink the tumor. A smaller tumor is easier to take out. They also help keep the cancer from spreading.

Or, you may have treatment after surgery. This order is called adjuvant treatment. You may have chemotherapy or radiation soon after surgery. The goal is to kill any cancer cells that are left. Even if there is no sign of cancer, your doctor may still suggest adjuvant treatment. Having it reduces the risk that cancer may come back or spread.

Sometimes new treatments are available in a clinical trial. Ask your doctor about them.

Some people use complementary therapies. That means they get standard cancer treatment, such as surgery, along with other supportive ones, such as yoga. You may want to talk about this option with your doctor. 


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