BACKGROUND The purpose of this study was to investigate the disease specific functional status of patients with oral cancer treated by primary surgery. The University of Washington head and neck cancer questionnaire (UW-QOL) was used, and outcome was compared against patient's age, sex, T category, site, surgical procedure, and adjuvant radiotherapy. METHODS In the year 1995, consecutive patients with previously untreated squamous cell carcinoma of the oral region were recruited. Questionnaires were given at four time intervals: preoperatively and at 3, 6, and 12 months. RESULTS Fifty patients underwent primary surgery for oral cancer between 4 January and 12 December 1995. Of 48 patients recruited, 41 (85%) had microvascular free tissue reconstruction. Patients with T category 3 or 4 tumors tended to report more severe problems than did patients with T category 1 or 2 tumors; this was especially true for increased pain (p <.001). There was a marked fall in cumulative UW-QOL scores by 3 months, with some recovery to 12 months. Of the initial 48 patients, 29 (60%) were alive and disease free at 1 year, and there were 25 completed questionnaires. The trend at 1 year was for better scores in women, T category 1 and 2, anterior oral cavity, primary closure/laser treatments, and patients not requiring adjuvant radiotherapy. CONCLUSIONS Patients undergoing surgery for oral cancer have a profound fall in quality of life scores by 3 months, and their scores approach pretreatment levels by 12 months. Clinical parameters are useful in predicting trends in UW-QOL outcome at 1 year and are also associated with differences in individual domain scores.