At Rush, our specialists use the latest treatment options to treat oral cancer, personalizing your care. We prioritize both survivorship and function.
Cancers of the oral cavity (including the lips, cheeks and tongue) and the oropharynx (including the soft palate, tonsils and throat) can crop up in a variety of ways and are not always easy to spot.
The good news is that even at the later stages, these cancers are still very treatable. With current treatment advances, survival rates for oral cancers have improved over even a decade ago. Some oral cancers have been found to have to survival rates of 80 to 90% at three years.
Oral Cancer Risk Factors
Men are twice as likely to be diagnosed with these cancers as women. These are some other common risk factors:
- Smoking or other tobacco use
- Alcohol use
- Combined tobacco and alcohol use (together these increase the chance of developing oral cancer more than either alone)
- Having human papillomavirus (HPV); a specific form of HPV — HPV 16 — can increase the risk for tonsil cancer or tongue base cancer
- Sun exposure (particularly for lip cancer)
Symptoms of Oral Cancer
The earlier oral cancer is diagnosed, the better the chance for it to be successfully treated. It is important to practice good oral hygiene and visit your dentist regularly because the early signs are hard to spot. Be aware of any changes in your mouth and pay attention to the following symptoms:
- A white patch in your mouth that does not wipe off (known as leukoplakia)
- Difficulty swallowing (dysphagia) or moving the tongue
- Sores in the mouth that don't heal
- Bleeding in the mouth that lasts more than a week
- Slow growing lumps in the mouth or neck
- Pain in your mouth lasting more than two weeks
- Dramatic voice changes, especially if you smoke
- Persistent earaches in both ears
- Numbness in lower lip and chin
If you experience any of these symptoms, visit your primary care doctor as soon as possible. If your doctor suspects you have oral cancer, they may refer you to a head and neck cancer specialist for further testing.
Oral Cancer Treatment at Rush
To determine whether you have oral cancer, a Rush head and neck specialist will likely take a biopsy (a sample of your tissue).
If you are diagnosed with oral cancer, you will be cared for by a multidisciplinary team of experts, including medical oncologists, ear, nose and throat doctors, radiation oncologists, reconstructive surgeons and rehabilitation therapists.
Your treatment will depend on several factors, including the following:
- Which type of oral cancer you have
- The stage of the cancer
- Your general health and age
Our team will work with you to discuss your concerns and your options. Our goals are to help eliminate the cancer while preserving as much of your ability to eat and talk as possible. Your personalized treatment plan may include one or more of the following:
Tumor Removal Surgery
Your doctors may recommend the surgical removal of the cancer and some surrounding tissue. Whenever possible, we use minimally invasive approaches to preserve your ability to eat and talk, including the following.
- Endoscopic approaches: Surgeons use a small, flexible tube (an endoscope) to see inside the body and remove tumors without making large incisions.
- Transoral robotic surgery (TORS): Rush head and neck surgeons are leaders in transoral robotic surgery, or TORS, a minimally invasive approach used to view, diagnose and treat difficult to reach and challenging to treat tumors. For some patients, TORS is a less invasive alternative that's still highly effective. Using tiny instruments placed through the mouth, TORS allows the surgeon to clearly see the tumor, evaluate it for treatment and remove it cleanly if necessary.
- Intensity-modulated radiation therapy can be used to treat oropharyngeal cancer, either with chemotherapy for larger, more advanced tumors, or after surgery. This form of radiation therapy uses 3D CT images to determine the tumor's shape, and then focus high doses of radiation on the tumor.
Chemotherapy may be used to shrink the tumor in the following ways:
- In combination with radiation therapy
- For patients with metastatic disease
To restore your ability to eat and/or speak, our surgeons use the most advanced reconstructive techniques. This includes using tissue from other parts of your body to recreate parts of your lips and mouth that were damaged by the tumor or the surgery to remove it.
Rehabilitation is an important part of oral cancer care. If your ability to talk, swallow or eat has been impaired, you may be referred for one or more of the following:
Rush Excellence in Oral Cancer Care
- Nationally ranked experts focused on you: U.S. News & World Report ranked Rush University Medical Center's ENT and cancer programs among the best in the nation.
- A multidisciplinary team dedicated to you: We take a team approach to your oral cancer treatment to ensure that you receive the most complete and effective care. Our team includes head and neck surgeons, medical oncologists, pathologists, radiation oncologists and plastic surgeons — all with expertise in treating oral cancers.
- Surgical expertise: Our head and neck cancer surgeons have expertise with the latest techniques and perform a high volume of procedures. For instance, we were the first in Illinois to offer transoral robotic surgery (TORS) and have since performed more TORS procedures than any other center in the state. This type of expertise enables us to determine which surgeries or other treatments will be most effective for you — whether you have newly diagnosed or recurrent oral cancer.
- Access to pioneering research and treatments: Rush is a leader in oral cancer research, so you'll have access to treatments that may not be widely available. This includes clinical trials for oral cancer and other head and neck cancers.
- Personalized medicine: Rush's oral cancer specialists use genetic analysis to inform your treatment decisions. We send blood and tumor tissue samples to Tempus — a biotechnology company — for genetic analysis. We can then tailor treatment to your specific gene variations, and match you with any appropriate clinical trials that are accepting new patients. This analysis is especially useful for patients who have run out of treatment options, and those with rare cancers.