About mouth and oropharyngeal cancer surgery
This page is about surgery for mouth and oropharyngeal cancers. You can find information about
Who will be involved in my surgery?
You are likely to have treatment from a team of specialist surgeons.
Effects of mouth and oropharyngeal surgery
The size and position of your cancer will affect the type of surgery you need. Surgery to the mouth and oropharynx may change the way you chew and swallow, the way you breathe, the way you talk, and your sense of smell. Your surgeon will always try to avoid changing your appearance. They will also try to keep functions such as breathing, speech, sight, chewing and swallowing as normal as possible. But sometimes this is not possible, and you will have changes to deal with. This can be very hard to come to terms with at first and take some time to get used to.
You may need to have a part of your face or neck rebuilt (reconstructed) with tissue flaps or skin grafts. For some cancers your surgeon may need to remove some of the bones in your face and mouth. If this is the case, your doctor may suggest you have a false part called a prosthesis made to replace the part of your face that has been removed.
With some types of mouth and oropharyngeal cancers, you may need to have to have a breathing stoma. This is a hole in your neck, made so that you can breathe. You may also hear this called a tracheostomy. Usually this is only temporary.
Cancers of the mouth and oropharynx sometimes spread to the lymph nodes in the neck. You may have an operation called a neck dissection to remove lymph nodes.
You can view and print the quick guides for all the pages in the Treating mouth cancer section.
You are likely to have treatment from a team of surgical specialists. This may include an
- Oral and maxillofacial surgeon
- Ear, nose and throat (ENT) surgeon, also called an otolaryngologist
- Restorative dentistry consultant – a dentist trained to make replacements for missing teeth or other mouth structures to improve your appearance, comfort or health
- Plastic surgeon
The team will also include a specialist nurse, speech and language therapist, and a dietitian. These people can help to support you through the surgery.
The type of operation you need depends on the size and position of your cancer. Your surgeon will discuss with you exactly what your operation will involve. You can find out about the different types of operation in this section.
Surgery to the mouth and oropharynx may
- Change how you chew and swallow
- Change how you breathe
- Change the way you talk
- Change your sense of smell
The links above take you to information about coping with these changes. The changes may happen because your face and neck is swollen and sore after surgery. These temporary changes will disappear once you start to heal. Swelling may also change how you look but this will also usually get better once the swelling goes down. But you may also have permanent changes in the way you look – for example, if your surgeon needs to remove some of the skin and soft tissues or bones in your face and mouth. This is not necessary for everyone who has these types of cancer.
You may need to have a part of your face or neck rebuilt (reconstructed) with flaps or skin grafts, using tissue taken from another part of your body. You can find information about these procedures on the page about types of mouth cancer surgery. If you need to have bones removed your doctor may suggest that you have a false part called a prosthesis made. The prosthesis replaces the part of your face that has been taken away.
With some types of mouth and oropharyngeal cancer you may also need to have to have a breathing stoma. A stoma is a hole in your neck, made so that you can breathe. It is also called a tracheostomy and you have a plastic tube in the hole to keep it open. Usually this is only temporary, and the tube is taken out a few days after your operation. The stoma then usually heals over. In some people a permanent stoma is needed. There is information about having a breathing stoma in the section about living with mouth and oropharyngeal cancer.
Your surgeon will always try to avoid changing your appearance. They will also try to keep functions such as breathing, speech, sight, chewing and swallowing as normal as possible. But sometimes this is not possible, and you will have changes to deal with. This can be very hard to come to terms with at first and can take some time to get used to.
There is information about changes after mouth and oropharyngeal cancer in the living with mouth and oropharyngeal cancer section.
Lymph nodes are also called lymph glands. There are groups of lymph glands all over your body, connected to each other by thin tubes called lymphatic vessels. There is detailed information about the lymph nodes and what they do in the about cancer section. Cancers of the mouth and oropharynx often spread to the lymph nodes in the neck. There is detailed information about removing lymph nodes in the neck in the types of operation section.
If you need surgery to remove lymph nodes, your surgeon may recommend an operation called a neck dissection. There are different types of neck dissection including
- Selective neck dissection
- Modified radical neck dissection
- Radical neck dissection
We have detailed information about these types of neck dissection.
If you would like more information about surgery for mouth or oropharyngeal cancer you can phone the Cancer research UK nurses on freephone 0808 800 4040. The lines are open from from 9am to 5pm, Monday to Friday. Our mouth and oropharyngeal cancer organisations page gives details of other people who can also give information. Some organisations can put you in touch with a cancer support group.
Our mouth and oropharyngeal cancer reading list has information about books and leaflets on treatments. If you want to find people to share experiences with online, you could use CancerChat, our online forum. Or you can go through My Wavelength. This is a free service that aims to put people with similar medical conditions in touch with each other.
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