If you’ve been diagnosed with oral cancer, you will likely undergo surgery to remove the cancerous tissue and prevent its spread into other areas of your body. Just as there are many types of oral cancer, there are several different surgical procedures used in its treatment:
- Primary tumor resection: Removal of the tumor and a small amount of surrounding tissue.
- Mandible resection: Removal of part or all of the lower jawbone.
- Maxillectomy: Removal of part of the maxilla, the bony area at the front of the mouth that holds the upper teeth.
- Glossectomy: Removal of part or all of the tongue.
- Neck dissection: Removal of some or all of the lymph nodes and nearby tissue in the next.
- Tracheostomy: Temporary or permanent incision of the trachea to insert a breathing tube to make respiration easier.
- Feeding tube placement: Temporary insertion of a gastronomy tube (G-tube) into your stomach to provide nutrition if there is difficulty swallowing. G-tubes may be routed through the nose, mouth, or an incision in the belly.
Regardless of the type of cancer you have and the surgical options being pursued by your medical team, there are some things that you should be prepared to experience and some steps you can take to be better prepared to take on the surgery and your recovery.
Before Your Oral Cancer Surgery
When your surgery is scheduled, you’ll meet with your surgeon or surgical team for a preoperative appointment. At this appointment, the surgeon will ask you several questions. Make sure to provide accurate and complete information. These questions ensure that the anesthesia, antibiotics, and other medications you’ll be given during the surgery won’t present any additional risks.
You’ll also be asked for a detailed medical history so that the medical team can ensure that any preexisting conditions that you have won’t cause additional complications for the surgery or your recovery. Make sure to answer these questions completely and accurately. If you have any doubt about whether you should mention any specific part of your medical history, mention it.
Ask Questions of Your Own
Now is a great time to get answers to any questions you have about the surgery or your recovery. It’s crucial that you understand what will happen during the procedure, what your aftercare will look like, how long your recovery will take, and what lifestyle changes will be required once the surgery and recovery are complete.
Remember, you’re not a doctor; nobody expects you to be. If you don’t understand any of the answers your surgeon provides, don’t be afraid to say so. “I didn’t understand that” is a perfectly valid response! It’s your body, and it’s well within your rights to know exactly what to expect before you undergo something as crucial as oral cancer surgery.
Questions you might want to ask include:
- What are the risks involved with this surgery?
- How often do you perform this surgery? How many have you performed?
- What, exactly, will you be doing during the surgery?
- Will the surgery change my appearance at all? How will it change?
- Will the surgery change how I talk, breathe, or eat? How?
- Will I need additional surgeries to complete the treatment or restore my swallowing or speaking ability?
- What will my recovery look like?
- Will I have special care needs after the surgery/recovery?
Once all the questions have been answered satisfactorily, you will be asked to sign a consent form to allow the surgeon to operate.
On the Day of the Surgery
Either during or after your preoperative appointment, you’ll be given a list of things to do before your surgery that may include avoiding some types or all kinds of food or drink for a certain period, removing any dental appliances, making sure to wash with a particular type of antibacterial soap, take oral antibiotics, or other instructions.
When you arrive at the hospital or clinic, you’ll be checked in, asked to verify your identity, and asked to confirm the type of surgery that you’re there to undergo. Once you’ve been taken back into the preoperative area, you may be hooked up to an intravenous drip (IV), which will provide you with fluids and medications during the procedure.
Once the surgery has been completed, you’ll be brought into a recovery ward or recovery room to wake up from the anesthesia and undergo postoperative evaluations of your vital signs. Once you’re awake and stable, you will be released (if the surgery was relatively minor or “outpatient”) or taken to a hospital room where you’ll stay for the first few days of recovery (if the surgery was significant or “inpatient”).
If there are any special dressings, tubes, or drains you’ll need to maintain during your recovery, the staff at the hospital or clinic will instruct you on how to manage those processes. You may be given prescriptions for pain medication, additional antibiotics, or other medications. Also, a follow-up appointment will be scheduled for you to meet again with your doctor or surgeon and assess how effectively your recovery is proceeding.
Possible Side Effects
It will likely be several weeks before you feel yourself again. During your recovery, you’ll probably experience side effects that could include:
- Weakness or numbness around the surgical area
- Bleeding or drainage
- Constipation or diarrhea
- Bloating or swelling in your face and neck
- Difficulty swallowing
Your surgical team will provide you with a list of potential side effects that are specific to the surgery you’ve had and also provide you with a list of warning signs that could indicate a dangerous postoperative complication. You must continue to monitor yourself for these warning signs for several days after the surgery and take the recommended action as soon as possible after experiencing one. These signs typically include:
- Bleeding more severe than the typical small amounts expected of an incision
- Redness or painful swelling around the incision site
- Pain that can’t be controlled with prescribed pain medication
- High fever
- Trouble breathing
- A newly developed cough
- Swelling, warmth, pain, or redness in one arm or leg
- Trouble passing urine, pain during urination, or sudden changes in the look or smell of your urine.
Athens Oral Surgery Can Help You Understand Your Oral Cancer Diagnosis and Treatment Options.