Your options for tongue cancer treatment depend on the type of tongue cancer you have, its location and its stage. Your treatment team also considers your preferences and works to create a personalized plan that's most effective for your particular situation.
Tongue cancer treatments have the potential to impact your speaking and swallowing, so your care team strategically plans treatments that will allow you to maintain as much function as possible.
Mayo Clinic head and neck surgeons have extensive experience treating tongue cancer. Surgeons often partner with pathologists, who analyze tissue during surgery to make sure all of the cancer has been removed.
Approaches used during tongue cancer surgery may include:
- Transoral surgery. At Mayo Clinic, surgeons remove most tongue cancer through the mouth (transoral surgery). To remove the cancer, doctors may use cutting tools or lasers during surgery.
- Transoral robotic surgery. Head and neck surgeons offer transoral robotic surgery, which provides more-precise access to base of tongue cancers. Typically this surgery is safe and effective and enables faster recovery times compared with standard surgical approaches.
- Open surgery. In certain cases, such as with large cancers or cancers that have spread in the neck, surgeons may use an approach that uses a large incision in the neck to remove the cancer.
Sentinel node biopsy. In order to determine whether cancer has spread to nearby lymph nodes, your surgeon may recommend a sentinel node biopsy.
During this procedure, a blue dye or radioactive tracer is injected near the cancer site. The doctor follows the path of the tracer to the first lymph node (sentinel node). This node is removed and tested for cancer.
If the sentinel node doesn't contain cancer, it's unlikely that other lymph nodes contain cancer. If the sentinel node is cancerous, the surgeon may remove other lymph nodes in the neck for testing.
- Reconstructive surgery. People with advanced tumors who experience face, jaw or neck disfigurement after tumor removal may need reconstructive surgery. Head and neck surgeons work with surgeons in plastic and reconstructive surgery to restore the appearance of the face, jaw or neck and use of the mouth. Experts in oral and face (maxillofacial) surgery also may be involved.
Radiation therapy uses high-powered beams of energy, such as X-rays, to kill cancer cells. Radiation therapy may be an option for early or advanced tongue cancer.
Mayo Clinic radiation oncologists have access to the most advanced radiation therapy treatments, such as intensity-modulated radiation therapy, which precisely targets radiation to tumor cells and limits radiation exposure to nearby normal tissue, and brachytherapy, which places radioactive material close to the tumor site.
Chemotherapy uses drugs to kill cancer cells. Chemotherapy may be used along with radiation therapy to treat locally advanced tongue cancer. For tongue cancer that has recurred or has spread to other areas of the body, chemotherapy may be recommended to slow the growth of the cancer.
Targeted therapy drugs, such as monoclonal antibodies, alter specific aspects of cancer cells that fuel their growth. These drugs can interrupt the spread and growth of specific tongue cancer cells. Targeted therapy is often used in combination with chemotherapy or radiation therapy.
Some people need help to improve their swallowing and speech function during and after tongue cancer treatment. At Mayo Clinic, you have access to a variety of experts to help you cope and recover, including specialists in speech and swallowing, physical therapists, occupational therapists, and dietitians.
If cancer or treatment makes it difficult for you to eat enough to get all the nutrients you need, your doctor may recommend tube feeding (enteral nutrition).
The Nicotine Dependence Center at Mayo Clinic can help people who want to stop using tobacco. Continuing to use tobacco increases your risk of a tongue cancer recurrence.
Dec. 20, 2014
- Head and neck cancers. Fort Washington, Pa.: National Comprehensive Cancer Network. http://www.nccn.org/professionals/physician_gls/f_guidelines.asp. Accessed Oct. 13, 2014.
- Flint PW, et al. Cummings Otolaryngology: Head & Neck Surgery. 5th ed. Philadelphia, Pa.: Mosby Elsevier; 2010. https://www.clinicalkey.com. Accessed Oct. 13, 2014.
- Gunderson LL. Clinical Radiation Oncology. 3rd ed. Philadelphia, Pa.: Saunders Elsevier; 2012. http://www.clinicalkey.com. Accessed Oct.13, 2014.
- Golden AK. Decision Support System. Mayo Clinic, Rochester, Minn. July 11, 2014.
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