The treatment of oral cancer depends on the location and stage of the cancer, along with the patient’s general health and personal preferences. A combination of treatments may be advised or may be necessary for the best chance of recovery or remission.
Even as you are reading this, research is being conducted across the United States to develop new and better ways of treating cancer patients. Some of these new therapies may be used alone or in combination with conventional methods such as surgery, chemotherapy, or radiation.
Research into the latest treatment of cancer is fundamental to improving outcomes for patients affected by the disease. New efforts face many obstacles to getting these products and procedures into mainstream healthcare. It’s expensive to develop new treatments and trials must include people who are willing to take a chance on these new methods.
Despite challenges, research for the development of more effective and less toxic treatments are coming alone. Developments in targeted therapies, immunotherapies, and cancer vaccines, as well as the improvement of therapies such as chemotherapy, radiation therapy, and surgery are critical are progressing. Some studies address better management of a treatment’s toxic effects, thereby improving a patient’s ability to receive effective cancer treatment. Still other studies test whether less intensive therapy or no therapy at all will result in the same outcome.
Some of the new therapies being tested include:
Hyperthermia Therapy: An experimental form of cancer therapy that utilizes localized or whole-body administration of heat. Intense heating will cause denaturation and coagulation of cellular proteins, rapidly killing the cells within a tumor.
Radio Waves or Electric Fields: This experimental treatment uses radio waves to heat up tiny metals that are implanted into cancerous tissue, or use an electric field through a tumor region using electrodes external to the body.
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Other therapies use genes, enzymes, hormones, or the body’s own immune system to fight cancer cells. Another treatment, called adoptive cell transfers, involves removing immune system cells (usually white blood cells) from a patient’s body, re-engineering them to teach them how to fight against specific forms of cancerous cells and then re-infusing them back into the patient’s body. The use of viruses to help the body’s immune system to identify cancer cells is also being examined. The human immune system is trained to fight against viral infections and thus it recognizes the now infected cancer cells as being viral in nature and it attacks them. The body doesn’t normally attack cancer cells on its own due to the fact that cancer cells have a sort of “shield” around them that causes the immune system to not be able to “see” it properly.
Surgical removal of the cancerous tumor is a common therapy and simply involves taking out the tumor and a margin of healthy tissue around it. In the case of oral cancers, a small tumor will require minor surgery, but for larger tumors, surgery may involve removing some of the tissue inside the mouth and throat. If the cancer has spread to the lymph nodes in the neck, the cancerous lymph nodes and related tissue in the neck are sometimes surgically removed.
Oral cancers are especially sensitive to radiation therapy, which uses beams of high-energy X-rays or radiation particles to damage the DNA inside the tumor cells, destroying their ability to reproduce. The way this works is that external beam of radiation delivers radiation from outside, while in brachytherapy, radioactive seeds and wires can be placed near the cancer inside the body. A person with early-stage mouth cancer may only need radiation therapy, but it can also be combined with other methods.
Widespread cancer may be treated with chemotherapy as well as radiation therapy, especially if there is a significant chance of the cancer returning. Chemotherapy involves using powerful medicines that damage the DNA of the cancer cells, undermining their ability to reproduce.
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One of the challenges of choosing chemotherapy as a treatment option is that chemotherapy medications can sometimes damage healthy tissue as well as creating significant adverse effects that further impair the immune system. These side effects include fatigue, vomiting, hair loss, no appetite, sleep disorders, and more. For this reason, some of the newest research in cancer therapies has been directed at minimizing the negative side effects of chemotherapy.
Targeted drug therapy uses drugs known as monoclonal antibodies to change aspects of cancer cells that help them grow. Some specific medication is used for some head and neck cancers. Targeted drugs may be combined with radiotherapy or chemotherapy. Negative side effects include nausea, loss of ability to breathe easily, diarrhea, and inflammation.
As newer methods and medications are developed to treat a variety of cancers, including oral cancers, scientists and healthcare professionals hope to gain a better understanding not only in the effective treatment of this disease, but also about how the body’s own immune system works. This clearer understanding of the relationship between healthy cells and cancer cells may also help create preventive measures that enable healthcare professionals to identify risks early, start treatment immediately and possibly even prevent cancer from ever developing or returning.