The mouth is an important part of eating, breathing and talking, and MD Anderson takes special care to customize your oral cancer treatment so that we maximize the chances of cure while minimizing the impact on your body and lifestyle.
Your care is provided by a team of health care professionals led by a doctor, typically a head and neck surgeon, who specializes in treating oral cancers. Other members of your team may include:
- Medical oncologists
- Radiation oncologists
- Plastic and reconstructive surgeons
- Speech pathologists
- Occupational and physical therapists
If you are diagnosed with oral cancer, your doctor will discuss the best options to treat it. This depends on several factors, including the type and stage of the cancer and your general health.
Your oral cancer treatment will be customized to your needs. One or more of the following therapies may be recommended to treat the cancer or help relieve symptoms.
Surgery is the most frequent first treatment for oral cancer. The type of surgery depends on the type, extent and stage of the cancer. Surgical techniques are designed to remove all of the cancer in the mouth. Lymph nodes that are confirmed or suspected to have cancer cells are also removed.
During oral cancer surgery, surgeons work closely with pathologists who use special techniques to examine the tissues and make sure the cancer is removed completely. If needed, plastic surgeons reconstruct the surgical site and help restore function.
If reconstruction is needed, our plastic/reconstructive surgeons are among the most experienced in the country. We take special care to work with each patient to restore optimum physical function and appearance.
Some oral cancer surgery patients need plastic or reconstructive surgery to help regain the ability to speak or swallow and/or restore their appearance.
Reconstruction is usually performed at the same time as the surgery to remove the cancer. In some cases, skin, muscle or bone from another part of body are removed and used for oral reconstruction. Patients may also need a specially made dental prosthesis or implant to restore function and appearance as much as possible. A therapist will show you how to use the device.
Radiation therapy uses powerful, focused beams of energy to kill cancer cells. There are several different radiation therapy techniques. Doctors can use these to accurately target a tumor while minimizing damage to healthy tissue.
Different types of radiation therapy are used to treat oral cancer, including the following:
- Intensity modulated radiation therapy (IMRT), which focuses multiple radiation beams of different intensities directly on the tumor for the highest possible dose.
- Proton therapy. This is like standard radiation therapy, but it uses a different type of energy that may allow doctors to target tumors with much more accuracy. This limits damage to nearby healthy tissue and allows for the delivery of a more powerful dose of radiation. Learn more about proton therapy.
- Stereotactic body radiation therapy (SBRT). Also known as stereotactic ablative radiotherapy, or stereotactic ablative body radiation. It precisely targets tumors with very high doses of radiation. SBRT achieves this by using several radiation beams of various intensities aimed at the tumor from different angles. SBRT is used to treat oral cancer only in limited cases. Learn more about SBRT.
- Stereotactic radiosurgery (SRS) is a non-invasive treatment that uses dozens of tiny radiation beams to accurately target tumors with a single high dose of radiation. Despite its name, SRS is not a surgical procedure. It does not require an incision or anesthesia. Stereotactic radiosurgery is effective for treating tumors in small areas in the head and neck that cannot be reached by surgery. It also can be used on patients who cannot tolerate surgery or have had previous radiation therapy to the brain. SRS is used to treat oral cancer only in limited cases. Learn more about stereotactic radiosurgery.
Chemotherapy drugs kill cancer cells, control their growth or relieve disease-related symptoms. Chemotherapy may involve a single drug or a combination of two or more drugs, depending on the type of cancer and how fast it is growing.
When oral cancer is in its early stages, chemotherapy can be given prior to surgery or along with radiation therapy after surgery.
Targeted therapy drugs are designed to stop or slow the growth or spread of cancer. This happens on a cellular level. Cancer cells need specific molecules (often in the form of proteins) to survive, multiply and spread. These molecules are usually made by the genes that cause cancer, as well as the cells themselves. Targeted therapies are designed to interfere with, or target, these molecules or the cancer-causing genes that create them.
For oral cancer, targeted therapy is used to treat metastatic disease only.
The immune system finds and defends the body from infection and disease. Cancer is a complex disease that can evade and outsmart the immune system. Immunotherapy improves the immune system’s ability to eliminate cancer.
For oral cancer, immunotherapy is used to treat recurrent or metastatic disease only.
One type of immunotherapy used for oral cancer is immune checkpoint inhibitors. They prevent cancers from turning off the immune system. This allows the immune system to target the cancer more effectively.
Clinical trials are a key component of MD Anderson's mission to end cancer. MD Anderson uses clinical trials to find better ways to prevent, diagnose and treat cancer.
MD Anderson has clinical trials for all stages of oral cancer. Your doctor may offer you a clinical trial as a treatment option.
Dental and speech care
Treatments for oral cancer can worsen existing problems in the gums and teeth and make care after treatments much more complicated. MD Anderson’s oral cancer team includes dentists who specialize in caring for cancer patients. Prior to treatment, they evaluate patients and perform any procedures needed to ensure long-term health and function of the teeth and gums. If part of the jaw is removed during treatment, these dentists make custom prosthetics for the patient to help restore appearance and function.
Oral cancer and its treatments can also impact the patient’s ability to speak, chew and swallow. Patients can receive therapy from speech pathologists to help them maximize those abilities both during and after treatment. Services include specialty clinics that address the specific challenges of head and neck cancer patients.
Treatment at MD Anderson
Oral cancer is treated in our Head and Neck Center.
MD Anderson patients have access to clinical trials offering promising new treatments that cannot be found anywhere else.
Becoming Our Patient
Get information on patient appointments, insurance and billing, and directions to and around MD Anderson.
MD Anderson has licensed social workers to help patients and their loved ones cope with cancer.