How Oral Cancer Affects Your Life

If you have cancer in the mouth, it can change your life. How it affects your day-to-day routine will depend on the size and location of your cancer and how advanced it is. But no matter the type, you can find help and ways to deal with the changes.

Oral cancer starts in the mouth. It can begin in the lips, tongue, gums, floor and roof of the mouth, and other places. You might need surgery, radiation therapy, or chemotherapy -- sometimes in combination. The cancer and treatments can change the way you eat, talk, and look. And it can take an emotional toll.

Eating

Soreness and swelling from surgery can make it uncomfortable to chew and swallow. Radiation therapy can make foods taste bitter or metallic, or give you dry mouth. Some treatments can make you nauseated. You may have lost teeth.

Many of those problems can be treated or will get better over time. Small changes can help you keep your body nourished.

  • If it’s hard for you to swallow, eat small portions every 2-3 hours instead of big meals.
  • Try a diet of soft foods like soups, casseroles, beans, and eggs.
  • Carry water with you to keep your mouth moist, or your doctor might prescribe artificial saliva.
  • Perk up your foods with flavorful ingredients like herbs and spices.
  • Avoid spicy dishes if your mouth is sore or infected.

If you have trouble keeping your weight up, your doctor may have you use a feeding tube for a while. It puts liquid food right into your stomach so you won’t have to swallow. A nutritionist can tell you more about what to eat and how to make it easier.

Speech

The way you talk might change. It depends on the size and location of your cancer and how much tissue doctors had to remove. Cancer on your tongue, for example, can make it harder to make “l” and “r” sounds. If you have a growth on the roof of your mouth, your voice may sound different. You could lose your voice.

A speech and language therapist can help you speak more clearly. Sometimes, removable devices that look like dental retainers can fill in for lost tissue or teeth to help you speak and eat better.

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Appearance

Surgery on your lips, jaw, and elsewhere on your mouth can change the way you look. You may have reconstructive or plastic surgery to rebuild bones or tissues. In most cases, you won’t see big scars, and they usually fade over time. Camouflage makeup can cover skin grafts and scars.

Some people may need a surgical hole in the front of the neck, called a stoma, to breathe. Usually, you need one only for a while.

Sex

You or your partner might be worried about sex after the stress and physical changes of treatment. Share your concerns and feelings. It’s normal for your desire for sex to drop. Hugging, holding hands, massage, and other touch can help you be intimate without sex.

Any physical contact you are comfortable with is safe. Take care with oral sex during treatment. Remember, you can’t spread your cancer to another person through sexual contact. But you can get a virus called HPV, which is the top cause of throat cancer, when you have oral, vaginal, or anal sex.

Emotional Health

Lean on your family, friends, and others so you won’t feel alone. You’ll likely have all kinds of emotions after you get through your treatments. You may worry about cancer coming back. You might feel stressed from dealing with your illness and its aftermath. It’s also common to feel depressed or anxious about changes to your body, health, and life.

Your moods may get better as time passes. If they don’t, ask for help. If your doctor thinks you have depression, she can treat you or refer you to a specialist. You might join a cancer support group or connect with others who’ve had similar experiences through online groups.

WebMD Medical Reference Reviewed by Evan Frisbee, DMD on October 28, 2019

Sources

SOURCES:

American Cancer Society: “Oral Cavity and Oropharyngeal Cancer.”

American Head & Neck Society: “Oral Cavity Cancer.”

Cancer Research UK: “Mouth and Oropharyngeal Cancer.”

Cancer Research UK: “Coping With Cancer.”

Oral Cancer Foundation: “Nutrition/Feeding Systems.”

National Cancer Institute: “Head and Neck Cancers.”

OncoLink/Penn Medicine: “Men's Guide to Sexuality During & After Cancer Treatment.”

Oral Health Foundation: “The Impact of Mouth Cancer.”

Mayo Clinic: “Mouth Cancer.”

American Speech-Language-Hearing Association: “Oral Cancer.”

American Academy of Maxillofacial Prosthetics: “Information About Your Obturators.”

Dana-Farber Cancer Institute: “Your Emotions after Treatment.”

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