Oral cancer may recur where it initially started or elsewhere in the body. The recurrence rates differ for people with early and advanced stages of oral cancer.
Oral cancer can occur anywhere in the mouth, including the gums, tongue, inner cheeks, and lips. Doctors
Oncology teams can successfully treat oral cancer in some people, although it may be more challenging or impossible if a person’s cancer is advanced. However, oral cancer can recur even after successful treatment.
This article looks at how common oral cancer recurrence is and the signs of recurrence. It also discusses the diagnosis, treatment, prevention, and outlook for oral cancer recurrence.
Rates of oral cancer recurrence differ according to different sources.
After a person has received curative treatment for primary oral cancer, doctors may detect recurrence in about
Rates of recurrence may vary depending on the stage of oral cancer. According to one 2022 review, oral cancer recurrence may occur in 50–60% of people with advanced oral cancer and 25–30% of people with early stage oral cancer.
- persistent mouth pain
- a sore in the mouth or on the lip that does not heal
- a persistent sore throat
- numbness in an area of the mouth
- a red, grey, or white patch on part of the mouth
- a lump or thickening in an area of the mouth
- a lump in the back of the throat
- jaw pain or swelling
- difficulty swallowing, chewing, or moving the tongue or jaw
- pain or loosening of the teeth
- dentures that become uncomfortable or begin to fit poorly
- ear pain
- unintentional weight loss
- shortness of breath
- frequent infections
Many other less severe conditions may be responsible for these symptoms, and having them does not mean a person’s oral cancer is recurring. However, someone with these or any other unexplained symptoms should check with their oncology team.
People typically receive follow-up visits with an oncologist for
A person may attend follow-ups every few months during the first 2 years after treatment and then every
During follow-ups, an oncologist will ask about the symptoms of possible recurrence and perform physical examinations. They may also:
If an oncologist suspects cancer recurrence, they may take a tissue sample, called a biopsy, for laboratory technicians to test for cancer cells. They may also order further testing.
Treatment for recurrent oral cancer depends on the size and location of the cancer and how oncologists treated the initial cancer.
If oral cancer recurs in the same place as before, there are different treatment options. The treatments depend on how oncology teams treated the previous cancer.
If doctors previously treated oral cancer with radiation therapy, they
If doctors treated the previous cancer with surgery, they may use the following treatment types or a combination:
If oral cancer recurs in the lymph nodes of the neck, oncology teams will
Oncology teams may use treatment options, such as chemotherapy, immunotherapy, and cetuximab to try and shrink or slow the growth of the cancer and relieve symptoms.
A person cannot prevent recurrence or predict whether their cancer will return.
If someone is a smoker, quitting smoking
A person should attend all of their follow-up appointments to increase the chances of early detection should the cancer return.
Overall, the 5-year relative survival rate for oral cancer is
The 5-year relative survival rate can differ depending on whether oral cancer is localized, regional, or distant:
- Localized: 86.6%
- Regional: 69.1%
- Distant: 39.3%
People with localized oral cancer who receive an early diagnosis generally have a more favorable outlook.
Advanced and distant oral cancer may be difficult or impossible for oncology teams to treat successfully.
Oral cancer is more likely to recur in people who previously had advanced stage oral cancer than those whose cancer was early stage.
Signs of recurrence include sores on the mouth, mouth pain, numbness, and swelling.
Oncologists use various tests to diagnose oral cancer and will base treatment on its location and stage. They also consider a person’s previous treatment when treating recurrent oral cancer.
Detecting and treating oral cancer before it spreads is likely to lead to more favorable outcomes.