Tongue Cancer

What is cancer of the tongue?

Tongue cancer is a growth of abnormal cells that form tumors on the tongue. If untreated, the tumor may spread throughout the tongue to the floor of the mouth, the gums, and the throat. As a tumor grows, it may spread to the lymph nodes in the neck and later to the rest of your body. Tongue cancer may also be called oral cancer.

Tongue cancer can be life threatening. The sooner cancer is found and treated, the better your chances for recovery. However, even advanced cancer can usually be treated. Treatment may slow or stop the growth of the cancer and ease symptoms for a time. Ask your healthcare provider what you can expect with the type of cancer that you have.

What is the cause?

Tongue cancer is one of the more common and serious types of oral cancer. It mainly occurs in people who smoke cigarettes, pipes, or cigars or use chewing tobacco. People who drink large amounts of alcohol and use tobacco products are at an even higher risk of getting oral cancer. Tongue cancer may also be caused by infection with human papillomavirus (HPV).

Tongue cancer is rare in people under age 40. It is also rare in people who do not use tobacco and alcohol. It happens most often after age 60.

What are the symptoms?

The tumor starts as a small lump, a thick white patch, or a sore on the tongue. It may be painful or tender. Over time, this lump turns into sore with a firm, raised rim and a center that bleeds easily.

The tongue gets stiff and hard to move if the tumor gets big enough to affect the muscle of the tongue. Eventually, the tumor may make it hard for you to swallow or talk.

If the disease is not treated, you may also have:

  • Pain
  • Bad breath
  • Drooling
  • Trouble eating
  • Trouble breathing
  • Trouble talking

How is it diagnosed?

Your healthcare provider will examine your tongue and mouth and ask about the history of the growth on your tongue, especially if you have had it longer than 10 days. You may have a tongue biopsy. You will be given medicine to numb your tongue and then a small sample of tissue is removed for testing.

How is it treated?

You and your healthcare provider will discuss possible treatments. You may also talk with a surgeon and a cancer specialist. Some things to think about when making treatment decisions are:

  • Your age
  • Your overall health
  • The stage of the cancer (how advanced the cancer is)
  • Whether the cancer has spread to other parts of your body

Possible treatments are:

  • Radiation therapy, which uses high-energy X-rays to kill cancer cells
  • Surgery, which removes cancer cells
  • Chemotherapy (anticancer drugs), which uses medicine to kill cancer cells

Speech therapy is often part of the treatment, particularly if parts of your tongue, lymph glands, or jaw need to be removed to remove all of the cancer.

Your treatment will also include:

  • Preventing infections
  • Controlling pain or other symptoms you may have
  • Controlling the side effects from treatments
  • Helping you manage your life with cancer

Often, more than 1 type of treatment is used. If tongue cancer is found at an early stage, these treatments may cure it. In advanced cases, treatment may stop the growth for a while and ease the symptoms. You will need to have regular follow-up visits with your healthcare provider.

Ask your healthcare provider about clinical trials that might be available to you. Clinical trials are research studies to find effective cancer treatments. It’s always your choice whether you take part in one or not.

How can I take care of myself?

If you have been diagnosed with tongue cancer:

  • Talk about your cancer and treatment options with your healthcare provider. Make sure you understand your choices.
  • Follow the full course of treatment prescribed by your healthcare provider.
  • Ask your healthcare provider:
    • How and when you will hear your test results
    • How long it will take to recover
    • What activities you should avoid and when you can return to your normal activities
    • How to take care of yourself at home
    • What symptoms or problems you should watch for and what to do if you have them
  • Make sure you know when you should come back for a checkup.

Other things that may help include:

  • Eat a healthy diet and get regular exercise as recommended by your healthcare provider.
  • Get plenty of rest.
  • Take good care of your teeth and gums and have regular dental checkups, particularly if you have had radiation treatment.
  • Try to reduce stress and take time for activities that you enjoy. It may help to talk with a counselor about your illness.
  • Talk with your family and your healthcare providers about your concerns. Ask your healthcare provider any questions you have about the disease, treatments, side effects of the treatments, sexuality, support groups, and anything else that concerns you.
  • If you use tobacco, try to quit. Talk to your healthcare provider if you need help to quit.
  • Ask your provider if you need to avoid drinking alcohol. It may interfere with medicines you are taking. Alcohol can also make it harder for white blood cells to fight infections.
  • Tell your provider if your treatment causes discomfort. Usually there are ways to help you be more comfortable.

How can I help prevent the cancer from spreading or coming back?

  • Complete the full course of surgical, radiation, and chemotherapy treatments ordered by your healthcare provider.
  • See your provider right away if you notice a return of any previous symptoms, such as a lump or ulcer on your tongue that does not heal.

For more information, contact:

Developed by RelayHealth.
Adult Advisor 2015.1 published by RelayHealth.
Last modified: 2014-02-20
Last reviewed: 2014-06-09
This content is reviewed periodically and is subject to change as new health information becomes available. The information is intended to inform and educate and is not a replacement for medical evaluation, advice, diagnosis or treatment by a healthcare professional.
Copyright ©1986-2015 McKesson Corporation and/or one of its subsidiaries. All rights reserved.

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