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At NYU Langone, a variety of specialists—including head and neck surgeons, oral and maxillofacial surgeons, and reconstructive surgeons—frequently collaborate to surgically manage oral cancer. Surgery is usually the first treatment used. The goal of surgery is to remove oral cancer while preserving your physical appearance and ability to speak and swallow.
Doctors typically use general anesthesia for these procedures, which are performed in the hospital.
The amount of time it takes to recover from surgery varies, depending on the type of procedure performed and whether reconstructive surgery is necessary.
If surgeons remove a small tumor in the front of the mouth, your hospital stay may be a day or two. During this time, our doctors monitor your health and manage any pain or discomfort with medication. If more extensive surgery and reconstruction are required, your hospital stay may be several days or longer.
Surgeons usually perform a wide resection to manage oral cancer, meaning they surgically remove the tumor along with a margin of healthy tissue to help ensure all cancerous cells are removed.
If a tumor is found on the lip, tongue, or in the lining of the oral cavity, surgeons may remove surrounding soft tissue. Surgeons may need to remove portions of the surrounding bone if cancer has spread to the jawbone or hard palate. Teeth may also need to be removed if cancer has spread to the jawbone.
The amount of tissue surgeons remove depends on the size of the tumor. The goal is to remove the cancer while preserving your ability to speak and swallow.
Reconstructive surgery, in which surgeons take tissue from another part of the body and use it to help repair the area from which the tumor was removed, often helps to maintain the functions of the mouth.
When oral cancer spreads, it often affects the lymph nodes in the neck first. Surgeons remove lymph nodes through incisions made in the neck, a procedure called a neck dissection. This surgery is performed in addition to a wide resection.
Because of the potential of oral cancer to spread to lymph nodes in the neck, our specialists may perform this procedure even when a mass cannot be felt or imaging scans show no evidence of cancer in the nodes.
Extensive surgery to remove oral cancer can cause swelling in the mouth and nearby tissue, including in the back of the throat, which can interfere with breathing. To avoid blocking the airway, doctors may perform a temporary tracheostomy during oral cancer surgery.
In this procedure, doctors insert a breathing tube into the trachea, or windpipe, through an incision made in the neck. This allows you to breathe without using your nose or mouth.
After the swelling subsides, the tube is removed—usually before you return home from the hospital.
Rehabilitation After Surgery
Rehabilitation may be an important part of your care after surgery for oral cancer. Structural changes in the mouth and temporary swelling of tissue can affect your ability to swallow and may interfere with speech. During recovery, your doctor may recommend inpatient or outpatient speech and swallowing therapy.
You may also meet with physiatrists at NYU Langone’s Rusk Rehabilitation. These specialists can help manage lymphedema, a condition in which fluid builds up in the head and neck after the removal of the lymph nodes. Experts at Rusk Rehabilitation offer lymphedema therapy to ease discomfort and restore function.
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