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About advanced cancer

Advanced cancer is cancer that started in the mouth or oropharynx and has spread to another part of the body.

Sometimes cancer is advanced when it is first diagnosed. Or the cancer has come back and spread after treatment for the original cancer.

Unfortunately, advanced cancer can’t usually be cured. But treatment can usually control it, relieve symptoms and improve quality of life.

Cancers that have spread to another part of the body are called:

  • secondary cancer
  • metastases
  • metastatic cancer

Where mouth and oropharyngeal cancer spreads

Mouth and oropharyngeal cancer can typically spread to the:

  • lymph nodes in the neck
  • lung 
  • liver 
  • brain

How you might feel

Finding out that you can’t be cured is distressing and can be a shock. It’s common to feel uncertain and anxious. It's normal to not be able to think about anything else.

Lots of information and support is available to you, your family and friends. It can help to find out more about your cancer and the treatments you might have. Many people find that knowing more about their situation can make it easier to cope.

    Talk to your doctor or nurse to understand:

    • what your diagnosis means
    • what is likely to happen
    • what treatment is available
    • how treatment can help you

    Everyone is different and there is no right way to feel.

    Survival

    Many people want to know what the outlook is and how their cancer will develop. This is different for each person. Your cancer specialist has all the information about you and your cancer. They're the best person to discuss this with.

    You can also talk to your specialist nurse.

    For information and support, you can phone the Cancer Research UK nurses on 0808 800 4040, from Monday to Friday, 9am to 5pm.

    Making decisions about treatment

    Deciding about treatment can be difficult when you have advanced cancer. Treatments such as chemotherapy or radiotherapy can help to reduce symptoms and might make you feel better. But they also have side effects that can make you feel unwell for a while.

    Ask your doctor to explain:

    • what treatment can do for you
    • how it might affect your quality of life
    • what side effects it has

    Your doctor might offer you a choice of treatments. Discuss the advantages and disadvantages of each treatment with them and ask how they can control any side effects. This helps you make the right decision for you. You also need to think about the other factors involved in each treatment, such as:

    • whether you need extra appointments
    • if you need more tests
    • the distance you need to travel to and from hospital

    You might have to make further choices as your situation changes. It helps to find out as much as possible each time. You can stop a treatment whenever you want to if you find it too much to cope with.

    You might also find it helps to talk things over with a close relative, a friend or a counsellor at the hospital.

    Your treatment

    Treatment depends on:

    • the size of the cancer and where it is in the body
    • the treatment you have already had
    • your general health

    Types of treatment

    Your doctor might recommend surgery to remove all or part of the cancer if it is beginning to block your airway. This can make breathing easier.

    Your doctor might suggest you have:

    • surgery combined with radiotherapy
    • chemotherapy
    • chemotherapy and radiotherapy (chemoradiotherapy)

    Clinical trials

    Treatments that are still in development may be another option for you. This will mean taking part in a clinical trial.

    If you decide not to have treatment

    You may decide not to have cancer treatments, such as chemotherapy. But you can still have medicines to help control symptoms, such as sickness or pain.

    Your doctor or nurse will explain what could help you. You can also ask them to refer you to a local symptom control team to give you support at home.

    Last reviewed: 
    15 Jun 2018
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    • Improving supportive and palliative care for adults with cancer
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      Journal of Otorhinolaryngology, Volume 63, Number 4

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      Lippincott, Williams and Wilkins, 2011

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      The Journal of Laryngology and Otology 2016 volume 130 (Suppl. S2) pages  S83–S89

    • Oropharyngeal cancer: United Kingdom National Multidisciplinary Guidelines

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      The Jouranl of Laryngology and Otology 2016 volume 130 (Suppl. S2) pages S90–S96

    Information and help

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