If you've been diagnosed with oral cancer, don't panic. Though the "Big C" is fraught with menace, the best approach is to tackle the disease head-on with a clear focus and the support of your health team. Depression is often a side effect of a cancer diagnosis, and that can lead to inaction.
First and foremost, if you still use tobacco and alcohol products, seek help in quitting immediately. On the medical side, treatment can involve surgery to remove the cancerous growth, chemotherapy, radiation treatments or a combination of all three. Typically, oral cancer requires a multi-disciplinary approach, involving oral surgeons, radiation and chemotherapy oncologists, dental experts and rehabilitation staff, as well as the possibility of plastic surgeons.
The first step for your medical team is to determine the extent of the cancer, and whether it has spread. This may entail X-rays, CT scans or MRI (magnetic resonance imaging). Based on those assessments, your doctors will determine a plan of attack. Typically, in the case of oral cancer, surgery is required to remove the tumor and any surrounding cancerous tissue, including lymph nodes.
The surgery may also be done in conjunction with radiation therapy to ensure the localized cancer cells are eradicated (using high-energy rays). Chemotherapy involves the use of cancer-killing drugs, which are usually administered directly into the bloodstream via injection. Both treatments can have severe side effects, however, and it's advised that you discuss any potential problems with your physician beforehand.
Post-surgery treatment depends on the severity of the cancer and how invasive it was. Patients may require reconstructive surgery (commonly known as plastic surgery) to rebuild the damaged tissue and bones. Since oral cancer can also attack the jawbone and soft tissue that holds teeth in place, dental implants plus tissue and bone grafts are a possibility.
Oral cancer can also affect a patient's ability to speak, chew and swallow (particularly if the tongue was impacted and/or partially removed) -- a condition that would require the assistance of a speech therapist.
Overall health is important, too. Cancer patients need to fortify themselves to recover not only from the cancer, but also from the necessarily invasive treatments. Proper nutrition, adequate rest, and an appropriate exercise regimen are critical components in making sure you have the energy to recover fully.
According to the Oral Cancer Foundation, patients need to be aware that oral cancer has a propensity for "developing second, primary tumors." That means it tends to come back. Vigilance is vital, as are adjustments to diet, and high-risk behavior (tobacco and alcohol use).
Want to know more about oral cancer? We have lots more information on the next page.