About 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. They 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 operation involves and the possible risks. These 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. They will try to 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 checkups and what they will involve.

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

This page is due for review. We will update this as soon as possible.

Last reviewed: 
04 Jun 2018
  • Will the mininvasive approach challenge the old paradigms in oral cancer surgery?

    G Tirelli and others 

    European Archives of Oto-Rhino-Laryngology 2017 volume 274(3) pages 1279-1289

  • Safety of transoral surgery for oropharyngeal malignancies: An analysis of the ACS NSQIP

    H Su and others 

    Laryngoscope 2016 volume 126(11):2484-2491

  • British Association of Oral & Maxillofacial Surgeons

    https://www.baoms.org.uk/patients/procedures/6/laser_excision_of_mouth_l... (Accessed June 2018)

  • Indications for Elective Tracheostomy in Reconstructive Surgery in Patients With Oral Cancer

    Y Leiser and others 

    The Journal of Craniofacial Surgery 2017 volume 28(1):e18-e22

  • Clinical assessment scoring system for tracheostomy (CASST) criterion: Objective criteria to predict pre-operatively the need for a tracheostomy in head and neck malignancies

    K Gupta and others 

    Journal of Cranio-maxillo-facial Surgery 2016 volume 44(9)  pages 1310-1313

Related links