Oral cancer is a group of malignancies that can occur in any part of the mouth. Immunotherapy for oral cancer is an emerging treatment option, as it helps the body’s own immune system recognize and fight cancer cells more effectively.

Although oral cancer generally has a fair outlook, early detection and proper treatment are essential for positive outcomes. Treatment options for oral cancer traditionally include surgery, chemotherapy, radiotherapy, or a combination of these treatments.

According to the National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research, there are roughly 53,000 new cases of oral cancer annually in the United States.

This article explores immunotherapy for oral cancer and how it works.

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Immunotherapy for oral cancer works by aiding the immune system in fighting the disease. It stimulates or blocks the action of certain immune system molecules so they work more effectively to find and attack cancer cells. It may also involve lab-made substances that resemble immune system components to restore or improve the immune system.

Cancer and the immune system

The immune system typically reacts when encountering a foreign substance, such as a virus or bacteria. However, it may have difficulty detecting cancer cells, as they begin as healthy cells. Therefore, the immune system may not recognize them as foreign.

In addition, some cancer cells also secrete substances that keep the immune system from finding and attacking them.

To address this issue, experts have developed different types of immunotherapies. For example, immune checkpoint inhibitors block proteins in tumor cells.

These proteins, called checkpoints, typically help keep the body’s immune response in check. By blocking them, the immune system can recognize cancer cells as harmful and attack them.

Other examples of immunotherapy include:

  • cell-based therapies
  • monoclonal antibodies
  • adoptive cell transfer therapy
  • cytokine modulation therapy
  • vaccines

What is oral cancer?

Oral cancer occurs when cells in the mouth or upper throat undergo uncontrolled and atypical growth. The most common type of oral cancer is squamous cell carcinoma, but other types include:

  • verrucous carcinoma
  • salivary gland malignancies
  • melanoma
  • sarcoma
  • adenocarcinoma
  • lymphoma

Oral cancer can occur anywhere in the mouth, including the:

  • lips
  • tongue
  • inside the cheeks
  • hard and soft palate
  • gums

A person may develop symptoms such as:

  • painful or persistent sores or bleeding in the mouth
  • difficulty chewing or swallowing
  • jaw pain
  • earaches

Early detection is key for improving survival rates, so anyone with symptoms should seek medical attention.

Read more about oral cancer here.

There are various ways to receive immunotherapy, including:

  • an intravenous injection directly into a vein
  • pills or capsules to swallow
  • a topical cream to rub on the skin in some cases of lip cancer

Depending on the type, a person may visit a clinic or outpatient unit in a hospital to receive immunotherapy. Alternatively, they may take pills or capsules at home.

A person may require daily, weekly, or monthly treatments. Doctors usually administer immunotherapy in treatment periods, after which follow a rest period, or cycle. This allows the body time to recover and respond between treatments.

After immunotherapy, a person may need to monitor their health closely. They may have regular checkups and tests, such as blood tests and scans, to monitor their condition. It is essential to follow any aftercare advice the healthcare team provides during this time.

In some cases, people may experience side effects of immunotherapy. They may include:

  • flu-like symptoms such as fever and chills
  • pain
  • swelling and soreness
  • itchy rashes
  • fatigue
  • weakness
  • nausea and vomiting
  • blood pressures issues
  • headache
  • trouble breathing

Anyone experiencing side effects should talk with a doctor or healthcare team for advice on managing them.

Treatment for mouth cancer depends on:

  • the type and size of the cancer
  • the grade and stage of cancer, meaning how far it has spread
  • the person’s general health

Options include:

  • Surgery: If the cancer has not spread beyond the mouth, surgery alone may cure it. If it has spread to the neck or is sizable, a doctor may recommend a combination of surgery, radiotherapy, and chemotherapy.
  • Radiotherapy: This approach uses high-energy X-rays to kill cancer cells and shrink tumors. Doctors typically use this technique after surgery to prevent the disease from returning.
  • Chemotherapy: Doctors may use these powerful drugs with radiotherapy if the cancer is widespread or there is a significant risk of it returning.

Read about the differences between immunotherapy and chemotherapy.

Treatments for oral cancer can cause unpleasant side effects, but there are steps a person can take to feel more comfortable.

These include:

  • eating foods such as soft and liquid meals
  • avoiding very hot or cold foods
  • using soothing mouthwashes
  • practicing relaxation techniques
  • getting enough rest
  • using medications for pain or flu symptoms

It is also important to seek medical advice if side effects become too uncomfortable. Doctors may recommend medications and other treatments to ease them.

Oral cancer is a type of cancer that occurs in the mouth or upper throat. Symptoms include persistent sores and bleeding, difficulty chewing or swallowing, and jaw pain.

Immunotherapy is a newer treatment option for oral cancer. It involves boosting the body’s natural defenses to fight the disease. Other treatments may include surgery, radiotherapy, and chemotherapy.

During cancer treatment, people may experience unpleasant side effects. Eating softer foods and avoiding extremes of temperature can make eating more comfortable. Resting and relaxation techniques are also helpful for managing fatigue.