Oral Cancer

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Good nutrition, regular checkups with your doctor and your dentist, and healthful habits are important to your recovery and for preventing a recurrence of cancer. Up to 40 percent of mouth and oropharynx cancer survivors have a recurrence of the cancer or develop a new cancer, the risk being the highest for people who use tobacco or drink alcohol excessively.

During treatment, getting enough nutrition can be a challenge. Your mouth may be sore or dry. Radiation can change your sense of taste and smell, and both chemotherapy and radiation can cause loss of appetite.

If your mouth is dry:

  • Try soft foods with sauces or gravy.
  • Eat soup, puddings, and milkshakes.
  • Talk to a nurse or dietitian about appropriate food choices.
  • Drink lots of water.
  • Suck on ice chips or sugar-free hard candy.
  • Use a saliva substitute to keep your mouth moist.

To lessen the chance of oral problems:

  • Gently brush your teeth, gums, and tongue with an extra-soft toothbrush and fluoride toothpaste after every meal.
  • Rinse your mouth several times each day with ¼ teaspoon of baking soda and one eighth teaspoon of salt in 1 cup of warm water. Follow with a plain water rinse.
  • Avoid the use of toothpicks.
  • Exercise your jaw muscles by opening and closing the mouth as far as possible without causing pain 20 times in a row, three times a day.
  • Ask your dentist if your old dentures need to be refitted.
  • Avoid sharp, crunchy foods like chips; hot, spicy, or acidic foods; sugary foods that might cause cavities; and alcohol.

Follow-up care

Because between 10 percent and 40 percent of mouth and oropharynx cancer survivors have a recurrence of the cancer or develop a new cancer, regular checkups and follow-up care are especially important.

The chance of recurrence is especially high for people who use tobacco or drink alcohol excessively. To decrease your risk, stop smoking and drink alcohol only moderately.

The frequency of your checkups may vary depending on the response of the tumor to treatment and the side effects you are experiencing. You will probably return to the doctor:

  • Every two to three months the first year
  • Every four months the second year
  • Every six months the third year
  • Once a year for up to five or more years

At the checkups, your doctor will examine your mouth, throat, and neck. Sometimes your doctor will ask you to have blood tests or X-rays. Your doctor may advise you to conduct self-examinations of the mouth between visits.

You will also need to visit your dentist regularly to ensure good oral health.

Lifestyle changes

Your habits can go a long way toward preventing a recurrence of mouth or oropharynx cancer.

Drink alcoholic beverages in moderation only.

Men should limit alcohol to no more than two drinks a day, women to one drink a day. A drink is defined as 12 ounces of beer, 5 ounces of wine, or 1.5 ounces of 80-proof distilled spirits.

Stop smoking or using tobacco products.

No matter how many years you've smoked, it is never too late to improve your health by kicking the habit. Consult a smoking cessation program, or contact the Smoking Quitline of the National Cancer Institute at (877) 448-7848 or the national quit line at (800) 784-8669 or at smokefree.gov.

Limit sun exposure.

Wear a hat when you are outside. Put on sunscreen with an SPF of at least 30 and lip balm with sunscreen added before going into the sun. Avoid the sun between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m.

Eat a healthful diet.

Eat five to nine servings of fruits and vegetables every day. Calcium is important; one way to get enough is to eat two to three servings of dairy products daily. Watch your weight.

Last reviewed on 6/4/09

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