Tongue Cancer

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What is tongue cancer?

Tongue cancer is a form of oral cancer. The tongue and lips are common sites for oral cancers. Most tongue cancers are squamous cell carcinomas that start in the surface layer of the tongue. Symptoms such as an ulcer or sore that does not heal, pain, and problems with swallowing may occur.

Alcohol and tobacco use are the strongest risk factors for oral cancers, including those of the tongue. Oral cancers are more common in men than in women and typically occur after the age of 40. Each year, about 37,000 people in the United States are diagnosed with some type of oral cancer (Source: ACS).

Early tongue cancers are often treatable with either surgery or radiation therapy, depending upon their location and size. After surgery to remove the cancer, reconstructive surgery can help restore structures that have been removed and rehabilitation can help you relearn how to eat, swallow and talk, if needed.

Emergencies related to tongue cancer are rare. Seek immediate medical care (call 911) for serious symptoms, such as uncontrolled or heavy bleeding or difficulty breathing. Seek prompt medical care if you develop sores or lumps in your mouth that do not resolve with time, or if you start having problems eating, swallowing or speaking.

What are the symptoms of tongue cancer?

Tongue cancer symptoms include sores or lumps on the tongue, altered taste, and difficulty swallowing or talking. Cancer that has spread can cause swollen lymph nodes in the neck and other symptoms.

Common symptoms of tongue cancer

Common symptoms of tongue cancer include:

  • Altered sense of taste

  • Bleeding in the mouth

  • Cracking in an area of the tongue

  • Difficulty eating or swallowing

  • Difficulty talking

  • Lump on the tongue

  • Nonhealing sore on the tongue, which may be white, pale, red, dark, or otherwise discolored

  • Swollen lymph nodes in the neck

  • Thickening of an area of the tongue

  • Tongue pain

  • Unexplained weight loss

Symptoms that might indicate a serious condition

In some cases, complications of tongue cancer can create a serious condition that should be immediately evaluated in an emergency setting. Seek immediate medical care (call 911) if you experience uncontrolled or heavy bleeding or breathing problems, such as shortness of breath, difficulty breathing, labored breathing, wheezing, not breathing, and choking. Seek prompt medical care if you have any of these symptoms:

  • Altered sense of taste
  • Bleeding in the mouth
  • Difficulty eating or swallowing
  • Difficulty talking
  • Persistent swollen lymph nodes (more than two weeks)
  • Sore or lump on the tongue that does not heal
  • Tongue pain
  • Unexplained weight loss

What causes tongue cancer?

What causes cells to undergo changes that lead to cancer is not known; however, several risk factors are known, including tobacco use, which is the strongest single risk factor for tongue cancer, and alcohol use. Infection by human papilloma virus plays an important role in the development of genetic changes that initiate the development of cancer.

What are the risk factors for tongue cancer?

A number of factors increase the risk of developing tongue cancer. Not all people with risk factors will get tongue cancer. Risk factors for tongue cancer include:

  • Age over 40 years
  • Alcohol abuse
  • Diet low in fruits and vegetables
  • Human papilloma virus (HPV) infection
  • Male gender
  • Personal history of oral cancer
  • Smoking or use of other tobacco products

Reducing your risk of tongue cancer

You may be able to lower your risk of tongue cancer by:

  • Eating plenty of vegetables and fruits

  • Quitting use of tobacco products, including cigarettes and smokeless tobacco

  • Reducing your alcohol consumption

How is tongue cancer treated?

Treatment of tongue cancer begins with seeking regular medical care throughout your life, including regular dental care. Regular medical care allows a health care professional to provide early screening tests. Regular medical care also provides an opportunity for your health care professional to promptly evaluate symptoms and your risks for developing tongue cancer.

The goal of tongue cancer treatment is to permanently cure the cancer or to bring about a complete remission of the disease. Remission means that there is no longer any sign of the disease in the body, although it may recur or relapse later.

Common treatments for tongue cancer

Common treatments for tongue cancer include:

  • Chemotherapy to attack cancer cells

  • Participation in a clinical trial that is testing promising new therapies and targeted treatments for tongue cancer

  • Radiation therapy to attack cancer cells

  • Surgery to remove the cancer and evaluate how far it has spread

Other treatments for tongue cancer

Other therapies may be added to help with your general state of health and any side effects of treatment:

  • Antinausea medications if nausea occurs

  • Blood cell growth factors to increase the number of white blood cells if these get too low during treatment

  • Blood transfusions to temporarily replace blood components, such as red blood cells that have dropped to low levels

  • Dietary counseling to help maintain strength and nutritional status

  • Pain medications as needed to increase comfort

  • Physical therapy to help with eating, swallowing or talking problems

  • Reconstructive surgery to restore structures that have been removed

Complementary treatments

Some complementary treatments may help some people to better deal with tongue cancer and its treatments. These treatments, sometimes referred to as alternative therapies, are used in conjunction with traditional medical treatments. Complementary treatments are not meant to substitute for traditional medical care. Be sure to notify your doctor if you are consuming nutritional supplements or homeopathic (nonprescription) remedies as they may interact with the prescribed medical therapy.

Complementary treatments may include:

  • Acupuncture

  • Massage therapy

  • Nutritional dietary supplements, herbal remedies, tea beverages, and similar products

  • Yoga

Hospice care

In cases in which tongue cancer has progressed to an advanced stage and has become unresponsive to treatment, the goal of treatment may shift away from curing the disease and focus on measures to keep a person comfortable and maximize the quality of life. Hospice care involves medically controlling pain and other symptoms while providing psychological and spiritual support as well as services to support the patient’s family.

What are the potential complications of tongue cancer?

Complications of tongue cancer can be serious, even life threatening in some cases. You can help minimize your risk of serious complications by following the treatment plan you and your health care professional design specifically for you. Complications of tongue cancer include:

  • Adverse effects of treatment
  • Decreased ability to eat, drink, talk or breathe
  • Hemorrhage (uncontrolled bleeding)
  • Recurring cancer after treatment
  • Spread of cancer into nearby structures
  • Spread of cancer to distant areas of the body
  • Spread of cancer to lymph nodes in the neck
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Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2021 Jan 19
THIS TOOL DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.
  1. Oral cancer. Medline Plus, a service of the National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health.. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmedhealth/PMH0002030/.
  2. Oral cancer. American Cancer Society. http://www.cancer.org/acs/groups/content/@nho/documents/document/oralcancerpdf.pdf.
  3. Siegel R, Naishadham D, Jemal A. Cancer statistics, 2013. CA Cancer J Clin 2013; 63:11.
  4. Bessell A, Glenny AM, Furness S, et al. Interventions for the treatment of oral and oropharyngeal cancers: surgical treatment. Cochrane Database Syst Rev 2011; :CD006205.
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