Diagnosis

Tests and procedures used to diagnose soft palate cancer include:

Examining your mouth and neck

A healthcare professional uses a mirror or tiny camera to get a closer look at your soft palate. The health professional looks for lumps, sores, or other signs of cancer in the mouth and throat. The health professional also may feel the neck for swollen lymph nodes. When soft palate cancer spreads, it often goes to the lymph nodes first.

Removing a tissue sample for testing

Called a biopsy, this test involves taking a sample of cells from the mouth. There are different types of biopsies. A sample may be collected by cutting out a piece of the suspicious tissue or the entire area. Another type of biopsy uses a thin needle that's inserted directly into the suspicious area and collects a sample of cells.

The samples are sent to a lab for testing. In the lab, tests can show whether the cells are cancerous. Other tests give more information about the cancer cells, such as if they show signs of HPV.

Imaging tests

Imaging tests capture pictures of the body. The pictures can show the size and location of the cancer. Imaging tests used for soft palate cancer may include:

  • X-ray.
  • CT.
  • MRI.
  • Positron emission tomography, also called PET.

Treatment

Treatment for soft palate cancer often includes surgery followed by radiation, chemotherapy or both. Your healthcare team considers many factors when creating a treatment plan. These might include the cancer's location and how fast it's growing. The team also may look at whether the cancer has spread to other parts of your body and the results of tests on the cancer cells. Your care team also considers your age and your overall health.

Surgery to remove the cancer

During surgery for soft palate cancer, the surgeon removes the cancer and some of the healthy tissue around it. This ensures that all the cancer cells are removed.

Sometimes surgery causes trouble with speaking and swallowing. Physical therapy and other rehabilitation services can help you cope with these changes.

Surgery to remove lymph nodes in the neck

When soft palate cancer spreads, it often goes to the lymph nodes in the neck first. If there are signs that the cancer has spread to the lymph nodes, you might need surgery to remove some lymph nodes, called a neck dissection. Even if there are no signs of cancer in the lymph nodes, you may have some of them removed as a precaution. Removing the lymph nodes removes the cancer and helps your healthcare team decide if you need other treatments.

To get to the lymph nodes, the surgeon makes a cut in the neck and removes the lymph nodes through the opening. The lymph nodes are tested for cancer. If cancer is found in the lymph nodes, other treatment might be needed to kill any cancer cells that are left. Options might include radiation or radiation combined with chemotherapy.

Sometimes it's possible to remove only a few lymph nodes for testing. This is called a sentinel node biopsy. It involves removing the lymph nodes to which cancer is most likely to spread. The lymph nodes are tested for cancer. If there's no cancer detected, it's likely that the cancer hasn't spread. Sentinel node biopsy isn't an option for everyone with soft palate cancer. It's only used in certain situations.

Reconstructive surgery

Reconstructive surgery may be used for people who had parts of their face, jaw or neck taken out during surgery. Healthy bone or tissue may be taken from other parts of the body and used to fill gaps. This tissue can replace part of the lip, tongue, palate or jaw, face, throat, or skin. Reconstructive surgery is sometimes done at the same time as surgery to remove the cancer. This may depend on the size and location of the cancer.

Radiation therapy

Radiation therapy uses powerful energy beams to kill cancer cells. The energy can come from X-rays, protons or other sources. During radiation therapy, a machine directs beams of energy to specific points on the body to kill the cancer cells.

Radiation might be used after surgery to kill any cancer cells that remain. Sometimes radiation is done at the same time as chemotherapy. If you can't have surgery or don't want surgery, radiation might be used instead.

Chemotherapy

Chemotherapy uses strong medicines to kill cancer cells. Chemotherapy may be used after surgery to kill any remaining cells. Sometimes chemotherapy is done at the same time as radiation therapy because it makes the radiation work better.

Targeted therapy

Targeted therapy uses medicines that attack specific chemicals in the cancer cells. By blocking these chemicals, targeted treatments can cause cancer cells to die. Targeted therapy is used to treat soft palate cancer that spreads to other parts of the body or comes back after treatment.

Immunotherapy

Immunotherapy is a treatment with medicine that helps your body's immune system kill cancer cells. Your immune system fights off diseases by attacking germs and other cells that shouldn't be in your body. Cancer cells survive by hiding from the immune system. Immunotherapy helps the immune system cells find and kill the cancer cells. Immunotherapy might be used when the cancer spreads to other parts of the body and other treatments haven't helped.

Therapy to help with recovery

Treatment for advanced soft palate cancer can impact your ability to speak and eat. Working with a skilled rehabilitation team can help you cope with changes that result from cancer treatment.

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Coping and support

People who are facing a serious illness often say they feel worried about the future. With time, you'll find ways to cope the feelings brought on by a cancer diagnosis. Until you find what works for you, you may find comfort in these strategies:

Ask questions about soft palate cancer

Write down questions you have about your cancer. Ask these questions at your next appointment. Also ask your healthcare team for reliable sources where you can get more information.

Knowing more about your cancer and your treatment options may help you feel more confident in making decisions about your care.

Stay connected to friends and family

You may find comfort in the support of a caring group of your friends and family.

Your cancer diagnosis can be stressful for friends and family too. Try to keep them involved in your life.

Your friends and family will likely ask if there's anything they can do to help you. Think of tasks you might like help with, such as caring for your home if you have to stay in the hospital or just listening when you want to talk.

Find someone to talk with

Find someone you can talk to who has experience helping people facing a life-threatening illness. Ask your healthcare team to suggest a counselor or medical social worker you can talk with. You might find it helpful to talk with other cancer survivors through support groups. Contact the American Cancer Society or ask your healthcare team about local or online support groups.

Preparing for your appointment

Make an appointment with a doctor or other healthcare professional if you have any symptoms that worry you.

If you have soft palate cancer, you may be referred to a doctor who specializes in diseases of the face, mouth, teeth, jaws, salivary glands and neck. This doctor is called an oral and maxillofacial surgeon. You also may be referred to a doctor who specializes in diseases that affect the ears, nose and throat. This doctor is called an ENT specialist or otolaryngologist.

Because appointments can be brief it's a good idea to be prepared. Here's some information to help you get ready.

What you can do

  • Be aware of any pre-appointment restrictions. At the time you make the appointment, be sure to ask if there's anything you need to do in advance, such as restrict your diet.
  • Write down symptoms you're experiencing, including any that may seem unrelated to the reason for which you scheduled the appointment.
  • Write down key personal information, including major stresses or recent life changes.
  • Make a list of all medicines, vitamins or supplements you're taking and the doses.
  • Take a family member or friend along. Sometimes it can be difficult to remember all the information provided during an appointment. Someone who accompanies you may remember something that you missed or forgot.
  • Write down questions to ask your healthcare team.

Your time with your healthcare team is limited, so preparing a list of questions can help you make the most of your time together. List your questions from most important to least important in case time runs out. For soft palate cancer, some basic questions to ask include:

  • What is the stage of my cancer?
  • What other tests do I need?
  • What are my treatment options?
  • Is there one treatment that's best for my type and stage of cancer?
  • What are the potential side effects for each treatment?
  • Should I seek a second opinion? Can you give me names of specialists you recommend?
  • Am I eligible for clinical trials?
  • Are there brochures or other printed material that I can take with me? What websites do you recommend?
  • What will determine whether I should plan for a follow-up visit?

What to expect from your doctor

You are likely to be asked a number of questions. Being ready to answer them may allow time later to cover points you want to address. You may be asked:

  • When did you begin experiencing symptoms?
  • Have your symptoms been continuous or occasional?
  • How severe are your symptoms?
  • What, if anything, seems to improve your symptoms?
  • What, if anything, appears to worsen your symptoms?
Oct. 10, 2023

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  2. Townsend CM Jr, et al. Head and neck. In: Sabiston Textbook of Surgery: The Biological Basis of Modern Surgical Practice. 21st ed. Elsevier; 2022. https://www.clinicalkey.com. Accessed May 19, 2023.
  3. Head and neck cancers. National Comprehensive Cancer Network. https://www.nccn.org/guidelines/guidelines-detail?category=1&id=1437. Accessed May 17, 2023.
  4. Ami TR. Allscripts EPSi. Mayo Clinic. May 15, 2023.
  5. Niederhuber JE, et al., eds. Cancer of the head and neck. In: Abeloff's Clinical Oncology. 6th ed. Elsevier; 2020. https://www.clinicalkey.com. Accessed May 17, 2023.
  6. Oropharyngeal cancer treatment (Adult) (PDQ) — Patient version. National Cancer Institute. https://www.cancer.gov/types/head-and-neck/patient/adult/oropharyngeal-treatment-pdq. Accessed May 19, 2023.
  7. 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and U.S. Department of Agriculture. https://www.dietaryguidelines.gov/sites/default/files/2021-03/Dietary_Guidelines_for_Americans-2020-2025.pdf. Accessed May 17, 2023.

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