Health A-Z

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Doctors assess a cancer's growth and assign it a "stage." A stage 0 or stage I tumor is just in one place or has not gone far into nearby tissues. A stage III or IV tumor may have grown deep into or beyond surrounding tissues.

Treatment depends on where the cancer started and its stage. Surgery, the most common treatment, involves removing the tumor and some healthy tissue around it. In many cases, the surgeon can remove the tumor through the mouth. But sometimes, the surgeon will need to remove the tumor through the neck or jaw. If cancer cells have spread into the lymph nodes, the surgeon will remove them to try to prevent the cancer from spreading to other parts of the body.

One of the most exciting new developments in the treatment of oral cancer is the use of robotic surgery. Complex operations that took hours and were quite debilitating can now be performed with greater efficiency using robotic assisted techniques.

Radiation therapy is the primary treatment for some small tumors. It uses high-energy x-rays to kill cancer cells. In some cases, patients who have surgery also receive radiation therapy to make sure that all cancer cells are destroyed. Even if it cannot cure the cancer, radiation therapy may relieve symptoms such as pain, bleeding, and trouble swallowing.

Doctors may prescribe chemotherapy to shrink tumors before surgery. If a tumor is too large to be operated on, chemotherapy and radiation therapy can ease symptoms.

If cancer is diagnosed at an earlier stage (stage I and II), the chances of a cure are much better. These tumors are less than 4 centimeters at the widest point and have not spread to lymph nodes. They can be treated with surgery or radiation therapy.

The treatment your doctor chooses may depend on the cancer's location. Surgery is usually the first choice if it isn't likely to affect your ability to speak and swallow. Radiation can irritate healthy tissue in your mouth or throat, but it is a better choice for some cancers.

Stage III and IV tumors are more advanced. These tumors are large, involve more than one part of the mouth, or have spread to lymph nodes. Usually, they are treated with more extensive surgery, as well as radiation therapy, chemotherapy, or both.

After the cancer has been treated, you may need therapy to regain the ability to speak and swallow. If you had extensive surgery, you may need cosmetic surgery, too.

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From Health A-Z, Harvard Health Publications. Copyright 2007 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College. All rights reserved. Written permission is required to reproduce, in any manner, in whole or in part, the material contained herein. To make a reprint request, contact Harvard Health Publications. Used with permission of StayWell.

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