About advanced mouth and oropharyngeal cancer

Advanced cancer means cancer that started in the mouth or oropharynx has spread to another part of the body.

Sometimes cancer is advanced when it is first diagnosed. Or the cancer has come back and spread after treatment for the original cancer.

Unfortunately, advanced cancer can’t usually be cured. But treatment can usually control it, relieve symptoms and improve quality of life.

Cancers that have spread to another part of the body are called:

  • secondary cancer
  • metastases
  • metastatic cancer

Where mouth and oropharyngeal cancer spreads

 The most common sites where mouth and oropharyngeal cancer spread to include: 

  • the lymph nodes in the neck
  • the bones
  • the lungs
  • the liver

Symptoms you might have

The symptoms of advanced mouth and oropharyngeal cancer depend on where the cancer has spread to. General symptoms can include:

  • feeling very tired (fatigue)
  • feeling generally unwell
  • weight loss for no known reason

Symptoms if cancer has spread to the lymph nodes in your neck

You may see a lump or notice a swelling in your neck. Some people may have general pain around their neck or have pain when they swallow. 

Symptoms if cancer has spread to the lungs

The symptoms you may have if your cancer has spread into the lungs can include:

  • a cough that doesn’t go away
  • shortness of breath
  • ongoing chest infections
  • weight loss
  • chest pain

Symptoms if cancer has spread to the bones 

Symptoms can include:

  • pain – the pain is continuous, and people often describe it as gnawing
  • backache, which gets worse despite resting
  • breaks in the bones because they are weaker
  • dehydration, confusion, being sick, tummy (abdominal) pain and constipation due to high levels of calcium in the blood (hypercalcaemia)

Symptoms if cancer has spread to the liver

The symptoms you might have can include:

  • tiredness
  • discomfort or pain on the right side of your tummy (abdomen) where the liver is
  • feeling sick (nausea)
  • loss of appetite
  • a swollen abdomen
  • yellowing of the skin or itchy skin (jaundice)

How you might feel

Finding out that you can’t be cured is distressing and can be a shock. It’s common to feel uncertain and anxious. It's normal to not be able to think about anything else.

Lots of information and support is available to you, your family and friends. Some people find it helpful to find out more about their cancer and the treatments they might have. Many people find that knowing more about their situation can make it easier to cope.

    Talk to your doctor or nurse to understand:

    • what your diagnosis means
    • what is likely to happen
    • what treatment is available
    • how treatment can help you

    Everyone is different and there is no right way to feel.

    Survival

    Many people want to know what the outlook is and how their cancer will develop. This is different for each person. Your cancer specialist has all the information about you and your cancer. They're the best person to discuss this with.

    You can also talk to your specialist nurse.

    For information and support, you can phone the Cancer Research UK nurses on 0808 800 4040, from Monday to Friday, 9am to 5pm.

    Making decisions about treatment

    Deciding about treatment can be difficult when you have advanced cancer. Treatments such as chemotherapy or radiotherapy can help to reduce symptoms and might make you feel better. But they also have side effects that can make you feel unwell for a while.

    Ask your doctor to explain what treatment you may have, the possible side effects and how it might affect your quality of life. 

    Your doctor might offer you a choice of treatments. You can discuss the benefits and risks of each treatment with them and ask how they can control any side effects. This helps you make the right decision for you. You also need to think about the other factors involved in each treatment, such as:

    • whether you need extra appointments
    • if you need more tests
    • the distance you need to travel to and from hospital

    You might have to make further choices as your situation changes. It helps to find out as much as possible each time. You can stop a treatment whenever you want to if you find it too much to cope with.

    You might also find it helps to talk things over with a close relative, a friend or a counsellor at the hospital.

    Your treatment

    Treatment depends on:

    • the size of the cancer and where it is in the body
    • the treatment you have already had
    • your general health

    Types of treatment

    Your doctor might recommend surgery to remove all or part of the cancer if it is beginning to block your airway. This can make breathing easier.

    Your doctor might suggest you have:

    • surgery combined with radiotherapy
    • chemotherapy
    • chemotherapy with radiotherapy (chemoradiotherapy)
    • targeted drugs, for example, pembrolizumab
    • treatment to control symptoms, for example, drugs or radiotherapy to control pain

    Clinical trials

    Treatments that are still in development may be another option for you. This will mean taking part in a clinical trial.

    If you decide not to have treatment

    You may decide not to have cancer treatments, such as chemotherapy. But you can still have medicines to help control symptoms, such as sickness or pain.

    Your doctor or nurse will explain what could help you. You can also ask them to refer you to a local symptom control team to give you support at home.

    Last reviewed: 
    17 Jun 2022
    Next review due: 
    17 Jun 2025
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