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Lip and Oral Cavity Cancer Treatment (PDQ®): Treatment - Health Professional Information [NCI] - Treatment Option Overview

Depending on the site and extent of the primary tumor and the status of the lymph nodes, some general considerations for the treatment of lip and oral cavity cancer include the following:[1,2,3,4,5]

  • Surgery alone.
  • Radiation therapy alone.
  • A combination of the above.

For lesions of the oral cavity, surgery must adequately encompass all of the gross as well as the presumed microscopic extent of the disease. If regional nodes are positive, cervical node dissection is usually done in continuity. With modern approaches, the surgeon can successfully ablate large posterior oral cavity tumors and with reconstructive methods can achieve satisfactory functional results. Prosthodontic rehabilitation is important, particularly in early-stage cancers, to assure the best quality of life.

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Radiation therapy for lip and oral cavity cancers can be administered by external-beam radiation therapy (EBRT) or interstitial implantation alone, but for many sites the use of both modalities produces better control and functional results. Small superficial cancers can be very successfully treated by local implantation using any one of several radioactive sources, by intraoral cone radiation therapy, or by electrons. Larger lesions are frequently managed using EBRT to include the primary site and regional lymph nodes, even if they are not clinically involved. Supplementation with interstitial radiation sources may be necessary to achieve adequate doses to large primary tumors and/or bulky nodal metastases. A review of published clinical results of radical radiation therapy for head and neck cancer suggests a significant loss of local control when the administration of radiation therapy was prolonged; therefore, lengthening of standard treatment schedules should be avoided whenever possible.[6,7]

Early cancers (stage I and stage II) of the lip, floor of the mouth, and retromolar trigone are highly curable by surgery or radiation therapy. The choice of treatment is dictated by the anticipated functional and cosmetic results. Availability of the particular expertise required of the surgeon or radiation oncologist for the individual patient is also a factor in treatment choice.

Advanced cancers (stage III and stage IV) of the lip, floor of the mouth, and retromolar trigone represent a wide spectrum of challenges for the surgeon and radiation oncologists. Most patients with stage III or stage IV tumors are candidates for treatment by a combination of surgery and radiation therapy. Patients with small T3 lesions and no regional lymph nodes, and no distant metastases or patients who have no lymph nodes larger than 2 cm in diameter, for whom treatment by radiation therapy alone or surgery alone might be appropriate, are the exceptions. Because local recurrence and/or distant metastases are common in this group of patients, they should be considered for clinical trials that are evaluating the following:

  • The potential role of radiation modifiers to improve local control or decrease morbidity.
  • The role of combinations of chemotherapy with surgery and/or radiation therapy both to improve local control and to decrease the frequency of distant metastases.
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