Tongue cancer is a subgroup of head and neck cancer. Cancer develops from the squamous cells of the tongue, forming a localized tumor. Cancer cells have the potential to grow and spread.
Tongue cancer is often grouped with other mouth cancers, such as cancer of the lips, hard palate, cheek lining, the portion of the mouth underneath the front of the tongue, or gums. These cancers are collectively known as oral cancer.
Cancer of the Tongue
Cancer occurs when cells in the body divide without control or order. Eventually these uncontrolled cells form a growth or tumor. The term cancer refers to malignant growths. These growths can invade nearby tissues including the lymph nodes. Cancer that has invaded the lymph nodes can then spread to other parts of the body.
It is not clear exactly what causes these problems in the cells, but is probably a combination of genetics and environment. Changes may occur as a result of:
- Smoking cigarettes, cigars, or a pipe
- Use of chewing tobacco, snuff, or other tobacco products
- Heavy alcohol consumption
Tongue cancer is more common in men, and in people aged 40 years and older. Other factors that may increase your chance of tongue cancer include:
- Poor oral and dental hygiene
- Irritation of the mucous membranes in the mouth due to smoking and drinking
- History of mouth ulcers
- Family history
Tongue cancer may cause:
- A lesion, lump, or ulcer on the tongue
- Difficulty swallowing
- Mouth sores and mouth pain
- Numbness or difficulty moving the tongue
- Change in speech due to inability to move the tongue over the teeth when speaking
- Pain when chewing and speaking
- Bleeding from the tongue
Tongue cancer may be detected by your dentist during a routine dental cleaning, or by your doctor during a routine physical exam.
To confirm diagnosis, your doctor will ask about your symptoms and medical history. A physical exam will be done. This may include examining your tongue for lumps or masses. A fiberoptic scope may be used.
- Your tongue tissue may need to be tested. This can be done with biopsy.
- Images may need to be taken. This can be done with:
The physical exam, combined with all of your test results, will help to determine the type and stage of cancer you have. Staging is used to guide your treatment plan. Like other cancers, tongue cancer is staged from I-IV. Stage I is a very localized cancer, while stage IV indicates a spread to other parts of the body
Tongue cancer treatment depends on the stage of the cancer, and the size and location of the tumor.
This is surgical removal of the cancerous tumor and nearby tissue, and possibly nearby lymph nodes. This is often the preferred treatment when the tumor is on the visible side of the tongue, when it is less than 2 centimeters, and when it is on one side and does not involve the base of the tongue.
This is the use of radiation to kill cancer cells and shrink tumors. Radiation therapy is used when the cancer is at the back of the tongue.
Chemotherapy is sometimes used with radiation to destroy the cancerous growth, especially if surgery is not planned.
To help reduce your chance of tongue cancer:
- Don't smoke or use tobacco products. If you do smoke or use tobacco products, talk to your doctor about how you can quit.
- Drink alcohol in moderation. Moderate drinking is a maximum of 2 drinks per day for men and a maximum of 1 drink per day for women.
- See your doctor regularly for check-ups and cancer screening exams.
American Cancer Society
National Cancer Institute
BC Cancer Agency
Canadian Cancer Society
Head and neck cancer. EBSCO DynaMed Plus website. Available at: http://www.dynamed.com/topics/dmp~AN~T115660/Head-and-neck-cancer. Updated March 28, 2016. Accessed September 14, 2016.
Head and neck cancer—for patients. National Cancer Institute website. Available at: http://www.cancer.gov/types/head-and-neck. Accessed April 30, 2013.
Tongue cancer. Cancer Research UK website. Available at: http://www.cancerresearchuk.org/about-cancer/cancers-in-general/cancer-questions/tongue-cancer. Accessed April 30, 2013.
Last reviewed September 2015 by Mohei Abouzied, MD
Please be aware that this information is provided to supplement the care provided by your physician. It is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. CALL YOUR HEALTHCARE PROVIDER IMMEDIATELY IF YOU THINK YOU MAY HAVE A MEDICAL EMERGENCY. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.