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


Early cancers of the buccal mucosa are equally curable by radiation therapy or by adequate excision. Patient factors and local expertise influence the choice of treatment. Larger cancers require composite resection with reconstruction of the defect by pedicle flaps.

Early lesions (T1 and T2) of the anterior tongue may be managed by surgery or by radiation therapy alone. Both modalities produce 70% to 85% cure rates in early lesions. Moderate excisions of tongue, even hemiglossectomy, can often result in little speech disability provided the wound closure is such that the tongue is not bound down. If, however, the resection is more extensive, problems may include aspiration of liquids and solids and difficulty in swallowing in addition to speech difficulties. Occasionally, patients with tumor of the tongue require almost total glossectomy. Large lesions generally require combined surgical and radiation treatment. The control rates for larger lesions are about 30% to 40%. According to clinical and radiological evidence of involvement, cancers of the lower gingiva that are exophytic and amenable to adequate local excision may be excised to include portions of bone. More advanced lesions require segmental bone resection, hemimandibulectomy, or maxillectomy, depending on the extent of the lesion and its location.

Early lesions of the upper gingiva or hard palate without bone involvement can be treated with equal effectiveness by surgery or by radiation therapy alone. Advanced infiltrative and ulcerating lesions should be treated by a combination of radiation therapy and surgery. Most primary cancers of the hard palate are of minor salivary gland origin. Primary squamous cell carcinoma of the hard palate is uncommon, and these tumors generally represent invasion of squamous cell carcinoma arising on the upper gingiva, which is much more common. Management of squamous cell carcinoma of the upper gingiva and hard palate are usually considered together. Surgical treatment of cancer of the hard palate usually requires excision of underlying bone producing an opening into the antrum. This defect can be filled and covered with a dental prosthesis, which is a maneuver that restores satisfactory swallowing and speech.

Patients who smoke while on radiation therapy appear to have lower response rates and shorter survival durations than those who do not;[8] therefore, patients should be counseled to stop smoking before beginning radiation therapy. Dental status evaluation should be performed prior to therapy to prevent late sequelae.


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  2. Wang CC, ed.: Radiation Therapy for Head and Neck Neoplasms. 3rd ed. New York: Wiley-Liss, 1997.
  3. Myers EN, Suen MD, Myers J, eds.: Cancer of the Head and Neck. 4th ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Saunders, 2003.
  4. Freund HR: Principles of Head and Neck Surgery. 2nd ed. New York, NY: Appleton-Century-Crofts, 1979.
  5. Lore JM: An Atlas of Head and Neck Surgery. 3rd ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Saunders, 1988.
  6. Fowler JF, Lindstrom MJ: Loss of local control with prolongation in radiotherapy. Int J Radiat Oncol Biol Phys 23 (2): 457-67, 1992.
  7. Langendijk JA, de Jong MA, Leemans ChR, et al.: Postoperative radiotherapy in squamous cell carcinoma of the oral cavity: the importance of the overall treatment time. Int J Radiat Oncol Biol Phys 57 (3): 693-700, 2003.
  8. Browman GP, Wong G, Hodson I, et al.: Influence of cigarette smoking on the efficacy of radiation therapy in head and neck cancer. N Engl J Med 328 (3): 159-63, 1993.

WebMD Public Information from the National Cancer Institute

Last Updated: February 25, 2014
This information is not intended to replace the advice of a doctor. Healthwise disclaims any liability for the decisions you make based on this information.
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