After you have been treated for the cancer itself, your doctor may refer you for reconstructive surgery and rehabilitation. He or she will also set up a schedule of follow-up visits to monitor your recovery.
- Reconstruction: If you require surgery for your treatment of oral cancer, your doctor will likely emphasize reconstruction to maintain function and appearance. Reconstruction may be as simple as putting your tongue muscles back together after removing the tongue cancer or grafting replacement skin over the missing oral cavity lining.
With more advanced cancers, more advanced reconstruction is required. In some cases, such as cancer of the jawbone, the reconstruction will also require bone. In such cases, a surgeon may transplant tissue from elsewhere in your body. Skin, muscle, or bone can be taken from your chest, forearm, lower leg, thigh, shoulder, or hip in order to achieve functional reconstruction.
- Rehabilitation: Following treatment of oral cancer with surgery, radiation, chemotherapy, or a combination of the three, you may find that you have lost function in several key areas. These include lubrication of your mouth and throat, swallowing without choking, speech, and movement.
For this reason, rehabilitation professionals, such as speech therapists, swallow therapists, physical therapists, and occupational therapists, may play an important role in helping you maintain an acceptable quality of life post-surgery. You may also need the assistance of a pain management specialist.
- Follow-up: After you have completed your cancer treatment, you will need to watch not only the area where your cancer began, but also other areas of your body to make sure there are no signs that the tumor has grown back. Your doctor may ask you to return every one to three months for evaluation over the course of your first year. The evaluations will include a thorough physical examination of your head and neck — examining the area of the tumor’s original position and examining your neck closely for possible spread to the lymph nodes. A careful schedule of imaging, often with PET-CT scan, will be employed as ongoing surveillance for disease.
As time goes on, the frequency of these follow-up visits will decrease because, as time goes on, tumors are less likely to recur. During these visits, the greater concern is not the possibility of the original cancer coming back, but concern that a second cancer will develop in the head and neck region. This is especially true for patients who continue to use tobacco and alcohol after their treatment.
If a new cancer — called a second primary cancer — were to occur, it would be important to identify it while it is small and often early-stage to achieve the best cure rate with the least invasive means of treatment. For these reasons, close follow-up after treatment is essential.
The Mount Sinai Health System is dedicated to treating patients before, during, and after their cancer treatment. If you have questions about your recovery, please let us know. We offer not only the best in cancer care, but a compassionate and supportive environment for your convalescence. Call us. We care, and we can make a difference.