During the period 1992-96, 304 patients with malignant tumours of the oral cavity were referred to the Department of Head & Neck Oncology, Copenhagen University Hospital. The female:male ratio was 1:2. Age ranged between 20 and 96 years, median 61 years. Ninety-five percent of the tumours were squamous cell carcinomas. Twenty-two percent were in stage I, 21% were in stage II, 21% were in stage III and 36% were in stage IV. Sixty percent of the patients underwent primary surgical resection, combined with reconstructive procedures if necessary. In 39% of all cases, surgery was followed by radiotherapy, while 21% of the patients, mainly stage I and II patients, were only treated surgically. Radiotherapy alone was received by 36% of the patients, mainly stage III and IV. Four percent of the patients received no treatment due to advanced disease or general poor condition. The overall recurrence rate was 42%, ranging from 23% in stage I to 61% in stage IV. Thirty-eight percent of these patients were treated for recurrence, almost exclusively by surgery. The survival rate 1 year after treatment of recurrence was 90%, 60% and 50% for patients in stage I, II and III respectively, while only 1 of 16 patients in stage IV was alive after 1 year. Three-year crude survival for the whole material was 42%, ranging from 58% in stage I to 18% in stage IV. This is an improvement of 12% compared with a similar group of patients treated in our departments in the period 1978-82, when the primary treatment of choice was external irradiation. The survival rate was, as expected, closely related to T- and N-stage at time of diagnosis. In conclusion, we recommend primary surgery followed by irradiation therapy for patients in stages II, III and IV. Surgical treatment of recurrence in patients who were formerly treated by irradiation therapy should be reserved for patients in good general condition and in a low TNM stage, stage IV patients will only benefit from salvage surgery in a few exceptional cases.