Treatment options for mouth and oropharyngeal cancer

A team of doctors and other professionals discuss the best treatment and care for you.

Your doctor will talk to you about the treatment they suggest. They will explain its benefits and the possible side effects.

This will depend on:

  • where your cancer is
  • how big it is and whether it has spread (the stage)
  • the type of cancer
  • how abnormal the cells look under a microscope (the grade)
  • your general health and level of fitness

Treatment overview

You might have one type of treatment or a combination of treatments. The main treatments are:

  • surgery
  • radiotherapy
  • chemotherapy
  • chemotherapy with radiotherapy (chemoradiotherapy)
  • targeted cancer drugs

Surgery 

Surgery is a common treatment for early stage mouth and oropharyngeal cancer. How much surgery you have depends on the size and location of your cancer. You are most likely to have an operation under general anaesthetic. 

Radiotherapy 

You can have radiotherapy alone or together with chemotherapy. Radiotherapy alone is a treatment for some types of mouth and oropharyngeal cancer that have not spread.

You may also have radiotherapy after surgery. This is to kill any cancer cells that might have been left behind. It lowers the risk of the cancer coming back. 

Chemotherapy 

You might have chemotherapy after surgery to lower the risk of cancer coming back in the future. This is called adjuvant treatment. 

You may have chemotherapy if your cancer has come back. Or if your cancer has spread into surrounding tissues or to other parts of the body.

Sometimes you can have it before other treatments (such as radiotherapy) to make the cancer smaller. 

Chemoradiotherapy 

This is chemotherapy and radiotherapy together. You may have chemoradiotherapy after surgery. Or you might have it instead of surgery if your cancer has spread into surrounding tissues or into nearby lymph nodes. 

Targeted cancer drugs

You might have a targeted or immunotherapy cancer drugs. For example, cetuximab (also known as Erbitux) or nivolumab (Opdivo). 

Treatment by stage

Your treatment depends on the stage of your cancer.

Stage 0 (carcinoma in situ) 

The cancer cells are all contained within the lining of the mouth or oropharynx. If left untreated, there is a high chance of the cells developing into a cancer. 

Your doctor may completely remove the cancer cells during a biopsy if the affected area is very small. Or you may need to have minor surgery. Your doctor removes the cancer cells by taking a thin layer of tissue from the affected area.

Your doctor will monitor you closely after treatment. If the cancer cells come back, you may have radiotherapy.

If you smoke and continue to do so, it is much more likely that you will develop cancerous cells again in the future.    

Stage 1 and 2

Your treatment depends on where in the mouth or oropharynx your cancer is. You might have: 

  • surgery
  • radiotherapy
  • surgery followed by radiotherapy
  • chemoradiotherapy

When deciding on your treatment plan, your doctor considers the possible side effects of treatment, and your general health. 

Stage 3 and 4

You might have surgery to remove the cancer. This usually includes removing some of the lymph nodes in the neck during an operation called a neck dissection. This is because there is a high risk that the cancer has spread to the lymph nodes. 

You may also have radiotherapy to your neck after surgery. This is to kill off any remaining cancer cells. 

When the cancer is too big or cannot be removed by surgery, you might have radiotherapy.  You may have radiotherapy alongside chemotherapy (chemoradiotherapy) or targeted cancer drugs. You might have a targeted drug on its own if chemotherapy drugs are not working.

For advanced mouth and oropharyngeal cancer, you may have treatment to relieve symptoms, for example, pain.  

Clinical trials

Your doctor might ask if you’d like to take part in a clinical trial. Doctors and researchers do trials to make existing treatments better and develop new treatments.

Last reviewed: 
24 Aug 2021
Next review due: 
24 Aug 2024
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