Soft palate cancer begins in the cells of the soft palate. Your soft palate is located on the upper portion of the back of your mouth, behind your teeth.
Soft palate cancer is considered a type of throat cancer. Doctors treat soft palate cancer similarly to the way they treat other types of throat cancers — often with a combination of surgery, radiation therapy and chemotherapy.
Some signs and symptoms of soft palate cancer can include the following:
- Difficulty swallowing
- Difficulty speaking
- Bad breath
- Mouth pain
- Sores in your mouth that won't heal
- Loose teeth
- Pain when you swallow
- Weight loss
- Ear pain
- Swelling in your neck that may hurt
- White patches in your mouth that won't go away
When to see a doctor
Talk to your doctor or dentist about any persistent signs and symptoms that worry you.
Soft palate cancer forms when a genetic mutation turns normal, healthy cells into abnormal cells. Healthy cells grow and multiply at a set rate, eventually dying at a set time. Abnormal cells grow and multiply out of control, and they don't die. The accumulating abnormal cells form a mass (tumor). Cancer cells invade nearby tissues and can separate from an initial tumor to spread (metastasize) to other parts of the body.
Things that may increase the risk of soft palate cancer include:
- Using tobacco
- Drinking alcohol
- Being infected with human papillomavirus (HPV)
- Taking medications that suppress your immune system
If you use tobacco and drink alcohol, your risk is even higher.
Ways to reduce your risk of soft palate cancer include:
- Don't use tobacco. If you don't use tobacco, don't start. If you currently use tobacco of any kind, talk with your doctor about strategies to help you quit.
- Limit alcohol if you choose to drink. If you choose to drink alcohol, do so in moderation. For healthy adults, that means up to one drink a day for women and up to two drinks a day for men.
- Get regular dental care. During your appointment, your dentist will check your mouth for signs of cancer and precancerous changes.
- Consider the HPV vaccine. Receiving a vaccination to prevent HPV infection may reduce your risk of HPV-related cancers, such as soft palate cancer. Ask your doctor whether an HPV vaccine is appropriate for you.
Tests and procedures used to diagnose soft palate cancer include:
- Examining your soft palate. Your doctor will use a mirror or tiny camera to examine your soft palate and other structures in your throat.
- Removing a tissue sample for testing. Your doctor will remove an area of suspicious tissue and send it to a lab for testing. In the lab, specially trained doctors (pathologists) will look for signs of cancer.
- Taking imaging tests. To better understand the size of your cancer and to look for signs that cancer may have spread beyond your soft palate, your doctor may recommend imaging tests, such as computerized tomography (CT), magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and positron emission tomography (PET).
Treatment for soft palate cancer depends on many factors, such as the size and location of your cancer, your overall health, and your preferences.
Treatment options may include:
- Surgery. The goal of surgery is to remove as much of the cancer as possible. If the cancer is small, it may be removed during a short operation that won't require a hospital stay. Larger cancers may require more-extensive operations. When the cancer has spread to the neck lymph nodes, lymph node removal may be necessary.
- Radiation therapy. Radiation uses beams of intense energy, such as X-rays and protons to kill cancer cells. Radiation therapy can be used alone or with chemotherapy or surgery to treat soft palate cancers of all stages.
- Chemotherapy. Chemotherapy uses drugs to destroy cancer cells. Chemotherapy may be combined with radiation therapy.
- Reconstructive surgery. Depending on where the cancer is located and how far it has spread, reconstructive surgery may be necessary.
- Rehabilitative services. Rehabilitation specialists in speech therapy, swallowing therapy, dietetics, physical therapy and occupational therapy help with rehabilitation that may be necessary after surgery or radiation therapy.
- Palliative care. Palliative care is specialized medical care that focuses on providing relief from pain and other symptoms of a serious illness. Palliative care specialists work with you, your family and your other doctors to provide an extra layer of support that complements your ongoing care.
Coping and support
A cancer diagnosis can be overwhelming and frightening. You can help yourself to feel more in control by taking an active role in your health care. To help you cope, try to:
- Learn enough about cancer to make decisions about your care. Ask your doctor about your cancer, including the stage of your cancer, your treatment options and, if you like, your prognosis. As you learn more about cancer, you may become more confident in making treatment decisions.
- Keep friends and family close. Keeping your close relationships strong will help you deal with your cancer. Friends and family can provide the practical support you'll need, such as helping take care of your home if you're in the hospital. And they can serve as emotional support when you feel overwhelmed by cancer.
Find someone to talk with. Find a good listener with whom you can talk about your hopes and fears. This may be a friend or family member. The concern and understanding of a counselor, medical social worker, clergy member or cancer support group also may be helpful.
Ask your doctor about support groups in your area or contact cancer organizations, such as the National Cancer Institute or the American Cancer Society.
Preparing for an appointment
Make an appointment with your doctor or dentist if you have any signs or symptoms that worry you.
If your doctor or dentist feels you may have soft palate cancer, you may be referred to a dentist who specializes in diseases of the gums and related tissue in the mouth (periodontist) or to a doctor who specializes in diseases that affect the ears, nose and throat (ENT specialist or otorhinolaryngologist).
Because appointments can be brief, and because there's often a lot of ground to cover, it's a good idea to be well prepared. Here's some information to help you get ready.
What you can do
- Be aware of any pre-appointment restrictions. At the time you make the appointment, be sure to ask if there's anything you need to do in advance, such as restrict your diet.
- Write down symptoms you're experiencing, including any that may seem unrelated to the reason for which you scheduled the appointment.
- Write down key personal information, including major stresses or recent life changes.
- Make a list of all medications, vitamins or supplements you're taking.
- Take a family member or friend along. Sometimes it can be difficult to remember all the information provided during an appointment. Someone who accompanies you may remember something that you missed or forgot.
- Write down questions to ask your doctor.
Your time with your doctor is limited, so preparing a list of questions can help you make the most of your time together. List your questions from most important to least important in case time runs out. For soft palate cancer, some basic questions to ask your doctor include:
- What is the stage of my cancer?
- What other tests do I need?
- What are my treatment options?
- Is there one treatment that's best for my type and stage of cancer?
- What are the potential side effects for each treatment?
- Should I seek a second opinion? Can you give me names of specialists you recommend?
- Am I eligible for clinical trials?
- Are there brochures or other printed material that I can take with me? What websites do you recommend?
- What will determine whether I should plan for a follow-up visit?
What to expect from your doctor
Your doctor is likely to ask you a number of questions. Being ready to answer them may allow time later to cover points you want to address. Your doctor may ask:
- When did you begin experiencing symptoms?
- Have your symptoms been continuous or occasional?
- How severe are your symptoms?
- What, if anything, seems to improve your symptoms?
- What, if anything, appears to worsen your symptoms?
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