- Slideshow: Top Problems in Your Mouth
- Teeth Whiteners That Work
- Dental (Oral) Health Quiz
- Patient Comments: Oral Cancer - Symptoms
- Patient Comments: Oral Cancer - Diagnosis
- Find a local Oncologist in your town
- Oral cancer facts*
- What is the oral cavity?
- What is cancer?
- Who's at risk for oral cancer?
- What are the symptoms of oral cancer?
- How is oral cancer diagnosed?
- How is oral cancer treated?
- Methods of treatment
- What are the side effects of treatment for oral cancer?
- What is rehabilitation for oral cancer?
- What happens after treatment for oral cancer?
- What does the future hold for patients with oral cancer?
- What resources are available to patients with oral cancer?
Quick GuideTop Problems in Your Mouth
How is oral cancer treated?
If the biopsy shows that cancer is present, your doctor needs to know the stage (extent) of your disease to plan the best treatment. The stage is based on the size of the tumor, whether the cancer has spread and, if so, to what parts of the body.
Staging may require lab tests. It also may involve endoscopy. The doctor uses a thin, lighted tube (endoscope) to check your throat, windpipe, and lungs. The endoscope may be flexible or rigid. The doctor inserts the endoscope through your nose or mouth. Local anesthesia is used to ease your discomfort and prevent you from gagging. Some people also may have a mild sedative. Sometimes the doctor uses general anesthesia to put a person to sleep. This exam may be done in a doctor's office, an outpatient clinic, or a hospital.
The doctor may order one or more imaging tests to learn whether the cancer has spread:
- Dental x-rays: An x-ray of your entire mouth can show whether cancer has spread to the jaw.
- Chest x-rays: Images of your chest and lungs can show whether cancer has spread to these areas.
- CT scan: An x-ray machine linked to a computer takes a series of detailed pictures of your body. You may receive an injection of dye. Tumors in the mouth, throat, neck, or elsewhere in the body show up on the CT scan.
- MRI: A powerful magnet linked to a computer is used to make detailed pictures of your body. The doctor can view these pictures on a monitor and can print them on film. An MRI can show whether oral cancer has spread.
- PET scan: A small amount of radioactive sugar is given into the vein. Cancer cells use sugar differently than normal cells. A scan for radioactivity may then help to localize cancer cells. The PET scan is often done along with a CT scan.
Many people with oral cancer want to take an active part in making decisions about their medical care. It is natural to want to learn all you can about your disease and your treatment choices. However, shock and stress after the diagnosis can make it hard to think of everything you want to ask the doctor. It often helps to make a list of questions before an appointment. To help remember what the doctor says, you may take notes or ask whether you may use a tape recorder. You may also want to have a family member or friend with you when you talk to the doctor - to take part in the discussion, to take notes, or just to listen.
Your doctor may refer you to a specialist, or you may ask for a referral. Specialists who treat oral cancer include oral and maxillofacial surgeons, otolaryngologists (ear, nose, and throat doctors), medical oncologists, radiation oncologists, and plastic surgeons. You may be referred to a team that includes specialists in surgery, radiation therapy, or chemotherapy. Other health care professionals who may work with the specialists as a team include a dentist, speech pathologist, nutritionist, and mental health counselor.
Getting a second opinion
Before starting treatment, you might want a second opinion about the diagnosis and the treatment plan. Some insurance companies require a second opinion; others may cover a second opinion if you or your doctor requests it. Do not be afraid to ask for a second opinion. These are serious conditions and you may want to learn about your diagnosis and treatment options from more than one source. Your doctor should not be offended if you ask for a second opinion, and can help you to arrange it, if asked.
There are a number of ways to find a doctor for a second opinion:
- Your doctor may refer you to one or more specialists. At cancer centers, several specialists often work together as a team.
- The Cancer Information Service, at 1-800-4-CANCER, can tell you about nearby treatment centers.
- A local or state medical or dental society, a nearby hospital, or a medical or dental school can usually provide the names of specialists in your area.
- The American Board of Medical Specialties (ABMS) has a list of doctors who have had training and exams in their specialty. You can find this list in the Official ABMS Directory of Board Certified Medical Specialists. The directory is available in most public libraries. Or you can look up doctors at http://www.abms.org. (Click on Who's Certified.)
- The American Dental Association (ADA) Web site provides a list of dentists by specialty and location. The ADA Member Directory is available on the Internet at http://www.ada.org.
- The NCI provides a helpful fact sheet on how to find a doctor called "How To Find a Doctor or Treatment Facility If You Have Cancer." It is available on the Internet at http://cancer.gov/publications.
You may want to ask the doctor these questions before treatment begins:
- What is the stage of the disease? Has the cancer spread? If so, where?
- What are my treatment choices? Which do you recommend for me? Will I have more than one kind of treatment?
- What are the expected benefits of each kind of treatment?
- What are the risks and possible side effects of each treatment? How will treatment affect my normal activities? Will I be given anything to control side effects?
- How long will treatment last?
- Will I have to stay in the hospital?
- What is the treatment likely to cost? Is this treatment covered by my insurance plan?
- Would a clinical trial (research study) be appropriate for me? (See "The Promise of Cancer Research" for more information about clinical trials.)
- Should I try to quit smoking?
Preparing for treatment
The choice of treatment depends mainly on your general health, where in your mouth or oropharynx the cancer began, the size of the tumor, and whether the cancer has spread. Your doctor can describe your treatment choices and the expected results. You will want to consider how treatment may affect normal activities such as swallowing and talking, and whether it will change the way you look. You and your doctor can work together to develop a treatment plan that meets your needs and personal values.
You do not need to ask all your questions or understand all the answers at once. You will have other chances to ask your doctor to explain things that are not clear and to ask for more information.