Tests and procedures used to diagnose mouth cancer include:
- Physical exam. Your doctor or dentist will examine your lips and mouth to look for abnormalities — areas of irritation, such as sores and white patches (leukoplakia).
- Removal of tissue for testing. If a suspicious area is found, your doctor or dentist may remove a sample of cells for laboratory testing in a procedure called a biopsy. Unusual cells can be scraped away with a brush or cut away using a scalpel. In the laboratory, the cells are analyzed for cancer or precancerous changes that indicate a risk of future cancer.
- For staging, the doctor may order one or more imaging tests to learn whether the cancer has spread:
- Dental x-rays
- Chest x-rays
- CT scan
- PET scan
Treatment for mouth cancer depends on your cancer’s location and stage, as well as your overall health and personal preferences.
Surgery for mouth cancer may include:
- Surgery to remove the tumor
- Surgery to remove cancer that has spread to the neck
- Surgery to reconstruct the mouth
Radiation therapy may be the only treatment you receive if you have an early-stage mouth cancer. Radiation therapy can also be used after surgery. In other cases, radiation therapy may be combined with chemotherapy. This combination increases the effectiveness of radiation therapy, but it also increases the side effects you may experience. In cases of advanced mouth cancer, radiation therapy may help relieve signs and symptoms caused by the cancer, such as pain.
Chemotherapy is a treatment that uses chemicals to kill cancer cells. Chemotherapy drugs can be given alone, in combination with other chemotherapy drugs or in combination with other cancer treatments. Chemotherapy may increase the effectiveness of radiation therapy, so the two are often combined.
Targeted drugs treat mouth cancer by altering specific aspects of cancer cells that fuel their growth. Cetuximab (Erbitux) is one targeted therapy approved for treating head and neck cancers in certain situations. Cetuximab stops the action of a protein that’s found in many types of healthy cells, but is more prevalent in certain types of cancer cells.