Lip Cancer


Learn about the contributing factors of lip cancer, and how it’s treated.

Considered a form of oral cancer, lip cancer affects the skin on the lips. While any part of the lips may be affected, it’s often the lower lip where this abnormality develops. Statically occurring with greater frequency in men, lip cancer is sometimes mistaken for a cold sore in early stages.

  • Risk factors associated with this type of mouth cancer include sun exposure, human papillomavirus infections, having a darker skin tone, working in outdoor occupations, and having a family history of similar oral cancers.
  • Tobacco use can also be a contributing factor, particularly pipe smoking.

Signs and Symptoms

Signs of cancer often show up on the lower lip since it’s this area that typically gets the most sun exposure. Because symptoms can be overlooked or dismissed as harmless, patients may not be referred to an ear, nose, and throat specialist until a doctor or dentist suspects lip cancer. In addition to sores, blisters, or other irritations that aren’t healing, patients may also experience:

  • Consistently painful or irritated lips
  • Jaw swelling not linked to another source
  • Lips with sores that are bleeding

Evaluation and Diagnosis

Examination of the lips, mouth, neck, and face is the first step in evaluating patients with suspected lip cancer. A positive diagnosis is usually made with the testing of a tissue sample. If cancer is detected, further analysis will be done to determine the specific type and stage of cancer. Image tests can determine if the cancer has spread further than the affected part of the lip.

Treating Lip Cancer

If initial treatments aren’t effective, surgery is usually performed to remove the tumor that’s on part of the lip along with adjacent healthy tissues as a precaution. Microscopic surgery is sometimes done to treat tumors with better precision. During reconstructive surgery, which is usually necessary when larger lip tumors have to be removed, techniques that minimize scarring may be used when the lip’s appearance and function need to be restored. If the cancer has spread to the lymph nodes in the neck, these structures may also be removed.

Radiation and Chemotherapy

Radiation therapy and chemotherapy may be attempted first prior to surgery, especially with cancerous tumors that are smaller. With radiation therapy, powerful beams are focused on the affected lip, or on lymph nodes and other neck tissues if the cancer has spread. Chemotherapy involves the use of potent drugs to damage cancer cells. For more aggressive types of lip cancer, chemotherapy may be combined with radiation therapy.

Avoiding excessive sun exposure and using appropriate sun protection products, such as lip balm with SPF properties, are among the ways to minimize the risk of developing lip cancer. Early evaluation of any unusual sores or blemishes by an ear, nose, and throat doctor may also increase the odds of responding well to treatment if lip cancer is discovered. Even after successful treatment, patients will need to take precautions to avoid conditions that may cause a recurrence in the same area, or on other parts of the lips.