Disease, Condition & InjuryHead & neck conditionsMouth

Tongue cancer

Tongue cancer – Definition

Tongue cancer is a subgroup of head and neck cancer. Cancer develops from the squamous cells of the tongue. This leads to a local tumor growth, and it later spreads.

Cancer occurs when cells in the body (in this case, tongue cells) divide without control or order. Normally, cells divide in a regulated manner. If cells keep dividing uncontrollably when new cells are not needed, a mass of tissue forms, called a growth or tumor. The term cancer refers to malignant tumors, which can invade nearby tissues and can spread to other parts of the body. A benign tumor usually does not invade or spread.

Tongue cancer is often grouped with other mouth cancers, such as cancer of the lips, hard palate, cheek lining, floor of the mouth (portion of the mouth underneath the front of the tongue), or gums. These cancers are collectively known as oral cavity cancer.

Tongue cancer – Causes

The exact cause of tongue cancer is unknown. However, the following lifestyle factors may be related:

  • Smoking cigarettes, cigars, or a pipe
  • Use of chewing tobacco, snuff, or other tobacco products
  • Heavy alcohol consumption

Tongue cancer – Risk Factors

These factors increase your chance of developing tongue cancer. Tell your doctor if you have any of these risk factors:

  • Sex: male
  • Poor oral and dental hygiene
  • Age: 40 and over
  • Irritation of the mucous membranes in the mouth due to smoking and drinking
  • History of mouth ulcers
  • Family history due to genetic predisposition

Tongue cancer – Symptoms

If you have any of these symptoms do not assume it is due to tongue cancer. These symptoms may be caused by other conditions. Tell your doctor if you have any of these:

  • Skin 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 – Diagnosis

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, and perform a physical exam. This may include:

  • Examination of your tongue for lumps or masses
  • Use of a fiberoptic scope — a thin tube with a tiny camera to examine the base of the tongue
  • A tongue biopsy — removal of a sample of tongue tissue to test for cancer cells
  • Computed tomography (CT) scan — a type of x-ray that uses a computer to make pictures of the mouth
  • Chest x-ray to determine if the cancer has spread to the lungs

Tongue cancer – Treatment

Once tongue cancer is found, staging tests are done to find out if the cancer has spread. Treatment depends on the stage of the cancer, as well as 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 quite small (less than 2 cm), and when it is lateralized to one side and does not involve the base of the tongue.

Radiation Therapy (or Radiotherapy)

This is the use of radiation to kill cancer cells and shrink tumors. This method 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.

Rehabilitation and Follow-Up

After treatment, your doctor may recommend:

  • Therapy to improve tongue movement, chewing, and swallowing
  • Speech therapy, if use of the tongue is affected
  • Close monitoring of your mouth, throat, esophagus, and lungs to see if the cancer has come back or spread

Tongue cancer – Prevention

To help reduce your chance of getting tongue cancer, take the following steps:

  • Don’t smoke or use tobacco products. If you do smoke or use tobacco products, get help to quit.
  • Avoid heavy alcohol consumption.
  • See your doctor regularly for check-ups and cancer screening exams.

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