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Oral cancer treatments

Developing a treatment plan for oral cancer generally takes into account quality of life issues, because oral cancer and its treatments may affect a patient’s ability to perform everyday functions like breathing and eating. In general, surgery is the first-line treatment for oral cancer that is caught early. Other treatment options typically include chemotherapy, radiation therapy and targeted therapy.


Chemotherapy may be used to treat oral cancer patients whose disease has spread. It may be given alone or in combination with other treatments.

Radiation therapy

Oral cancer patients are often treated with two primary types of radiation therapy:

External beam radiation therapy (EBRT): This treatment delivers high doses of radiation to tumor cells from outside the body, using a variety of machine-based technologies. We also use EBRT to help relieve some of the symptoms of oral cancer, such as pain, bleeding, trouble, swallowing and problems that arise if cancer spreads to the bone. Two examples of oral cancer EBRT include:

  • Accelerated and hyperfractionated radiation therapy: This type of radiation therapy is typically given twice a day, and at a higher frequency than normal EBRT.
  • Intensity modulated radiation therapy (IMRT): Compared to standard radiotherapy, IMRT delivers higher radiation doses than traditional therapies would allow. IMRT also helps to spare more of the surrounding healthy oral tissue from harmful doses of radiation.

Brachytherapy (internal radiation): Delivers high or low doses of radiation from implants placed close to, or inside, the tumor(s) in the body. Brachytherapy may be an alternative to surgery for some oral cancer patients. Because it requires no incision and leaves no surgical wound to heal, recovery from the procedure is generally rapid.


Oral cancer that is detected at an early stage, before the cancer cells have spread to other areas of the body, is generally treated with surgery. Surgery also may be used to treat patients with advanced-stage and recurrent cancers, often in combination with radiation therapy, chemotherapy or targeted therapy.

Many oral cancer surgery patients are often concerned about disfigurement; but recent advances in reconstructive surgery help patients restore their appearance, sometimes with little or no sign of change. Your doctor will work closely with you to ensure that your treatment is appropriate for your health and well-being.

Learn more about surgery for oral cancer

Targeted therapy

One potential target in oral cancer is the epidermal growth factor receptor (EGFR). Studies have shown that many oral tumor cells contain too many copies of EGFR. This excess hormone allows the cancer cells to grow faster and to become resistant to radiation and/or chemotherapy. Treating oral cancer with a drug that targets EGFR may help kill cancer cells without harming normal tissues.

Your oncologist may recommend an EGFR-targeted drug in combination with chemotherapy or radiation therapy to treat oral cancer. If the cancer has stopped responding to radiation and chemotherapy, targeted therapy may be used on its own to help control the disease.

Next topic: How is oral cancer treated with surgery?

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