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About surgery

The type and amount of surgery you have depends on the stage of your cancer. Find out when and how you have surgery.

You have some tests to help your doctor decide if surgery is the best option for you. 

You are likely to have treatment from a team of specialist surgeons and other health professionals (a multidisciplinary team). They support you before and after the surgery. 

What happens

There are different types of surgery to remove cancer of the mouth and oropharynx. 

For some early stage cancers, you may be able to have laser surgery. This uses a thin beam of light to cut away the cancer cells. 

But most types of surgery for mouth and oropharyngeal cancer can't be done with a laser. You are likely to need a general anaesthetic. This means you will be asleep for the whole operation. The amount of tissue the surgeon takes away, depends on where your cancer is. 

The surgeon may need to rebuild part of your face or neck (reconstruction) with tissue flaps or skin grafts. Or they may need to remove some of the bones in your face and mouth. If this happens, you may have a false part (a prothesis) to replace the part of your face that the doctor has removed. 

For some types of mouth and oropharyngeal cancer, you may need to have a breathing stoma (tracheostomy). This is a hole in your neck that you can breathe through. It is usually temporary. 

Before the surgery

You meet your surgeon, anaesthetist, clinical nurse specialist and dietitian. They explain the surgery and what to expect when you wake up from the anaesthetic.

You also have some tests before. This is to make sure you are fit for the surgery.

Removing teeth and putting in dental implants

A dentist may need to remove some or all of your teeth before surgery. Your restorative dentist will talk this through with you before your operation. And will be able to answer your questions. 

You may be able to have dental implants put in during or after surgery. 

Possible risks

Your surgeon will discuss what your surgery involves. And what the possible risks are. They depend on the type of surgery you have. 

Some types of surgery may change:

  • the way you look
  • how you chew and swallow
  • how you breathe
  • how you speak
  • your sense of smell

Your surgeon will always try to avoid changing your appearance. And keep your breathing, speech and eating as normal as possible. But sometimes this is not possible, and you will have changes to deal with. 

Coming to terms with the changes may be hard at first. And you may need some time to get used to them.  

Your doctors will make sure the benefits of having surgery outweigh these possible risks.

Follow up

At your first follow up appointment, your doctor:

  • gives you the results of the surgery
  • examines you
  • asks how you are and if you've had any problems  

This is also your opportunity to ask any questions. Write down any questions you have before your appointment to help you remember what to ask. Taking someone with you can also help you to remember what the doctor says.

How often you have follow up appointments depends on the results of your surgery. Ask your doctor how often you need to have check ups and what they will involve.

You will have a follow up appointment a few days after your surgery.

Last reviewed: 
14 Oct 2014
  • Improving Outcomes in Head and Neck Cancers - The Manual

    National Institute for Clinical Excellence, 2004

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