Tongue Cancer

Tongue cancer refers to a type of malignant oral cancer that normally starts in the forward two-thirds of the tongue or base of the tongue. Although tongue cancer is not “catchable” or contagious in any way and it is mostly observed in men than women.

Signs and Symptoms

The tumor is often difficult to see in the early stages as there are very few symptoms to be noticed.

  • A lump on the side of the tongue that touches the teeth (lateral side)
  • The lump often looks like an ulcer and is grayish-pink to red in color
  • The lump bleeds easily if bitten or touched

Symptoms in later stages:

  • Pain and a sense of fullness in the throat
  • Difficulty swallowing
  • The feeling of a lump in the neck or throat
  • Change in the voice or ear pain


It’s hard to pin down the causes of tongue cancer because it is also seen in people with no risk factors at all. In some people the most observed and most common risk factors are:

  • A family history of cancer
  • People over the age of 40, especially after 60
  • Heavy use of tobacco products (smoking, chewing, or snuffing of any sort)
  • Alcohol consumption
  • Regular exposure to the sun can increase the risk of oral cancers. Starting from the lips it will spread to the tongue.
  • If the person is a victim of head or neck cancer, he or she has an increased risk for tongue cancer

Tests and Procedures to Diagnose Tongue Cancer

Several tests are used to aid in the diagnosis. Initially the doctor will take a medical history and enquire about the symptoms. The tests include the following:

  • Physical examination of a patient's tongue, neck and throat for lumps or masses
  • CT (computed tomography) scan, a type of X-ray to take pictures of the mouth and throat
  • PET scans (positron emission tomography) which uses radioactive materials to identify excessive activity in an organ.
  • Different methods of tongue Biopsy
  • Fine Need Aspiration (FNA) biopsy
  • Incisional biopsy
  • Punch biopsy

How to treat Tongue Cancer?

Once tongue cancer is diagnosed, the treatment is based on stage, size and location of the tumor.

The various treatments include:

1. Surgery

The surgical removal of the cancerous tumor and nearby tissue is often the preferred treatment especially when the tumor is visible and quite small (less than 2 cm), and when it is lateralized to one side and does not involve the base of the tongue.

2. Radiation Therapy (or Radiotherapy)

The treatment is given with the use of radiation to kill cancer cells and shrink tumors. It is mostly used when the cancer is at the back of the tongue.

3. Chemotherapy

Chemotherapy alone is not used to treat the tongue cancer completely but when it is used in combination with surgery or radiation therapy it helps to control the growth of the tumor.

Chemotherapy is prescribed in different ways:

  • Together with radiation as an alternative to surgery (chemoradiation)
  • Chemotherapy after surgery to decrease the risk of the cancer returning
  • To slow the growth of a tumor and control symptoms if the cancer cannot be cured (palliative treatment).

4. Intensity-Modulated Radiation Therapy (IMRT)

IMRT determines the accurate dose of radiation required to treat the tumor. It is mainly aimed at damaging only the rapidly dividing cancer cells and minimizing radiation exposure to the surrounding tissue.

5. Targeted drug therapies such as monoclonal antibodies interrupt the spread and growth of specific tongue cancer cells

6. Reconstructive surgery to restore physical appearance and function to the tongue and surrounding organs

7. Rehabilitation to help you regain speech and swallowing function

Preventive Measures

As we know that prevention is better than cure, taking preventive steps can avoid tongue cancer and improve your oral health. Preventive measures to lower your chances of oral cancer are:

  • Reduce or quit smoking
  • Reduce drinking alcohol on a regular basis
  • Apply lip balm or sunscreen when going outside to prevent cancer on your lips
  • Eat more fruits and vegetables to improve your immune system
  • Maintain good oral hygiene habits
  • Brush your tongue regularly to keep your tongue healthy.

Treatment Cost

The advanced treatment cost for Surgery, Radiation and/or Chemotherapy for tongue cancer can vary from $4500 to $8500. The cost involved may vary from state to state and may include stay in a private room, patient surgeon fee, medicines and consumables, nursing care and food.

Side Effects

All treatments will have side effects but the advantage is some of them last for few days and others for months. Side effects may be temporary or permanent. Some of them are:

  • Surgery can cause problems with your speech and changes in eating and drinking
  • Radiotherapy can cause a dry, sore mouth and taste changes
  • Lack of salivary function

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