BACKGROUND: The study was designed to investigate immunocompetence in relation to cancer progression in rat and to assess the effect of the traditional Chinese anti-cancer medicine, "Shenyang" prescription, on immunity. METHODS: 4-Nitroquinoline-1-oxide (4NQO) was administered to 80 Sprague-Dawley (SD) rats via the drinking water for up to 36 weeks. Tongue squamous cell carcinoma (SCC) was confirmed by pathological examination in 61 rats. "Shenyang" prescription was administered to subgroups of these rats, and blood samples were taken before and after treatment. Lymphocyte subsets were determined by flow cytometry. Serum Th1 and Th2-type cytokines were assessed by an enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay. RESULTS: As the cancer progressed at the tongue root, the percentage of CD3+CD4+ T lymphocytes and NK cells and the levels of IFN-gamma and IL-2 decreased gradually, while the percentage of CD3+CD8+ T lymphocytes and the levels of IL-4 and IL-10 increased. The CD4+/CD8+ ratios were lower in the cancer groups than in the control group. However, after administering "Shenyang" prescription, the levels of CD3+CD4+ T lymphocytes, NK cells, IFN-gamma and IL-2 increased, while the CD3+CD8+ T lymphocyte counts and the levels of IL-4 and IL-10 decreased. CONCLUSION: 4NQO-induced lesions were good models for exploring oral cavity carcinogenesis. The rats with 4NQO-induced SCC demonstrated abnormalities in lymphocyte subsets and a shift from Th1-type to Th2-type, which were good models for assessing the effect of anticancer agent on immunity. Oral cancer progression was associated with an aggressive disturbance of immune function. "Shenyang" prescription has the ability to improve the disturbance of immune function.