Surgery for oral cancer aims to remove cancerous cells and a small margin of healthy tissue. The type and extent of cancer will determine the type of surgery doctors recommend.

Oral cancer is a category that includes cancers of the mouth and the oropharynx — the area of the throat at the back of the mouth. Around 1.2% of adults in the United States will receive a diagnosis of oral cavity or pharynx cancer at some point in their lives.

Oral cancer surgery is an important step in the treatment of oral cancer. It involves removing tumors and other abnormal cells from the mouth. Potential methods include traditional surgery, transoral laser resection, and robotic surgery.

This article outlines types of oral cancer surgery and the costs involved.

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Doctors often recommend surgery as the first treatment for people with early stage oral cavity and oropharyngeal cancers. It is a common treatment for small cancers that have not spread.

Surgeons usually aim to remove the tumor and any affected tissue and reduce the risk of cancer spreading to other body parts. A person may also have reconstructive surgery to restore the appearance and function of the treated area.

Doctors strongly advise people who smoke to quit before treatment begins. This can improve wound healing and increase a person’s chances of survival.

The following sections outline some types of oral cancer surgery.

See what mouth cancer looks like here.

Tumor resection involves removing the cancerous tissue and a margin of healthy tissue around it. In some cases, if the cancer is small, it may not cause many complications. If the cancer is larger, doctors may need to perform reconstructive surgery.

Sometimes, people may need other treatments, such as radiotherapy and chemotherapy, to kill any remaining cancer cells and decrease the chance that the cancer will recur.

In some cases, a person may need a second surgery if doctors find cancer cells in the healthy margin of tissue around the tumor.

Learn about chemotherapy and radiotherapy here.

People with some lip cancers may be candidates for Mohs micrographic surgery.

During this procedure, surgeons remove the tumor in thin slices and examine each one for cancer cells. They repeat this process until the slice contains no visible cancer cells.

This technique allows surgeons to conserve as much healthy tissue as possible and reduces the potential for a change in the appearance of a person’s face. However, surgeons may not recommend this procedure if the tumor is larger than 2 centimeters, as obtaining healthy surrounding tissue is more difficult in such cases.

Learn more about Mohs surgery here.

In a glossectomy, surgeons remove the tongue. For small tongue cancers, a partial glossectomy — removal of about one-third of the tongue — may be enough to remove the cancer. For larger tongue cancers, surgeons may need to remove the entire tongue.

If a person has a partial glossectomy, they may experience changes to their speech afterward.

If a person undergoes a total glossectomy, surgeons will reconstruct the tongue. However, people will experience differences in swallowing and speech and will likely need rehabilitation to relearn these functions.

Learn more about tongue cancer here.

A maxillectomy or partial maxillectomy is surgery to remove part or all of the maxilla. The maxilla is the bone that forms the upper part of the jaw, including the front of the roof of the mouth. This procedure may be necessary if cancer has grown into the hard palate.

Surgeons usually finish this operation by replacing the bone with a prosthetic to fill the hole left in the mouth. Alternatively, they can use a skin graft or muscle from other parts of the person’s body.

A mandibulectomy is a surgery to remove all or part of the jaw bone or mandible.

Surgeons may need to remove only part of the jaw bone if imaging tests show no evidence of cancer.

If imaging tests reveal cancer in the jaw bone, surgeons may remove a large part. Typically, surgeons reconstruct the jaw using a piece of bone from a different part of the person’s body, a prosthetic, or bone from a deceased donor.

Trans-oral robotic surgery (TORS) is becoming more common for treating cancer at the back of the throat and mouth. In this procedure, a surgeon uses a robotic arm to cut out tumors in the back of the throat that they may otherwise be unable to reach.

TORS is less invasive than open surgeries for throat cancer and sometimes removes the need for a mandibulectomy. However, this is a fairly new surgery and requires experienced surgeons to perform it.

When surgeons remove tumors, they may also remove tissue that a person uses for swallowing. This can increase the risk of food entering the windpipe and reaching the lungs, causing pneumonia.

To reduce the risk, surgeons may perform a laryngectomy to remove all or part of the larynx, or voice box. Surgeons make a hole, or stoma, in the front of the throat and attach the windpipe to it. People breathe and cough through the hole. Doctors refer to this as a tracheostomy.

Surgeons also perform laryngectomies to treat hypopharyngeal and laryngeal cancers.

After this surgery, people may experience numbness in parts of the neck and throat where surgeons cut the nerves. People will lose their typical speech ability and will need follow-up care with a speech therapist to learn new ways to speak.

Learn more about a laryngectomy here.

Lymph node dissection, or neck dissection, is a surgery to remove lymph nodes and other tissues from the neck. Doctors carry out this surgery when cancer may have spread from the lip and oral cavity to the lymph nodes.

This surgery can be:

  • Partial/selective: Surgeons remove only some lymph nodes.
  • Modified radical: Surgeons remove most lymph nodes on one side, along with some nerve tissue and muscle.
  • Radical: Surgeons remove almost all lymph nodes, muscles, nerves, and veins.

Learn more about lymph nodes here.

The surgery cost depends on the type of surgery a person needs, how extensive it is, and its potential complications. Health insurance may cover surgery, so a person should contact their insurance company before surgery to find out the approximate cost.

Learn whether Medicare covers oral surgery here.

Surgery plays an important role in treating early stage oral cavity cancer. It can also play a role in other early stage head and neck cancers that occur outside the oral cavity.

Oral cancer surgery is often effective at removing oral cancer tumors. Surgery may involve removing tissue from the mouth, the throat, the tongue, and other areas of the head and neck.

Many types of surgery are available for people with oral cancer. Surgeons aim to remove cancerous tissue and a margin of healthy tissue while preserving as much healthy tissue as possible. Reconstructive surgery may be necessary to restore the appearance and function of treated areas.