Tongue Cancer


Tongue cancer is relatively rare, but requires an early treatment plan.

Different parts of the tongue and nearby areas in the mouth and throat may all be affected by tongue cancer. Considered a form of oral cancer, the disease can affect either the oral part of the tongue that sticks out or the base of the tongue that’s connected to the throat.

  • More common in adults, tongue cancer is often treatable with surgery.
  • For more advanced forms of this type of cancer, a combination of treatments is often recommended.

Causes of Tongue Cancer

There’s research suggesting human papillomavirus (HPV) could be associated with tongue cancer that affects the base of the tongue. Poor oral hygiene, improperly fitting dentures, alcoholism, and cirrhosis of the liver may also play a role in the development of abnormal cells within the tongue.

Symptoms and Signs

A lump or sore on the top, side, or underside of the tongue and/or painful ulcers are some of the signs and symptoms often associated with oral tongue cancer. These lesions may be painful or bleed when touched. Because of the location of oral tongue abnormalities, detection is often made in early stages of the disease. Cancer that develops further along the tongue closer to the throat my produce symptoms that include:

  • Voice changes
  • Difficulty swallowing
  • A lump in the throat
  • Ear pain
  • Bloody sputum

Examination and Diagnosis

After an oral examination and a review of a patient’s medical history and symptoms, diagnosis of any form of tongue cancer typically involves image testing and the collection of a tissue sample. X-rays may be taken from several different angles to provide a more detailed assessment of how the tongue and nearby structures are affected. A lighted tube called an endoscope is sometimes inserted through the nose to view the throat, especially if it’s the lower portion of the tongue that’s affected.

Surgery for Tongue Cancer

Treatment will depend on the size and location of the cancer. With smaller tongue lesions, surgery may be done to remove the affected tissue. Larger tumors may require more advanced surgery along with reconstructive surgery to restore the function and appearance of the tongue. In some cases, lymph nodes may also need to be removed. Surgery usually includes the removal of adjacent healthy tissue as a preventative measure.

Radiation Therapy, Chemotherapy, and Drug Therapy

Tongue tumors are sometimes treated with a newer form of radiation therapy known as intensity-modulated radiation therapy in order to prevent affected cells from reproducing and affecting nearby areas. Chemotherapy may be combined with radiation therapy if the cancer is affecting lower portions of the tongue and nearby tissues. Drug therapy involving the use powerful drugs to treat cancer on a molecular level might be recommended if tongue cancer is recurrent or not responding well to other treatments.

Accounting for about 2 to 4 percent of all cancers in the United States, tongue cancer is considered rare. Risks factors such as certain skin conditions or inherited blood disorders, the use of tobacco products, and being 55 or older may increase the odds of developing this form of oral cancer. If patients report unusual throat irritations during a routine doctor’s visit, they may be referred to an ear, nose, and throat specialist to determine if tongue cancer or similar abnormalities may be involved.