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What is Tongue Cancer?


Updated May 28, 2014

Written or reviewed by a board-certified physician. See About.com's Medical Review Board.

Question: What is Tongue Cancer?

Types of Tongue Cancers

Tongue cancer is a type of oral or oropharyngeal cancer and is often lumped into one of these categories by medical professionals. This is important since when you are researching tongue cancer, you may find information in articles for oral or oropharyngeal cancer.

There are two portions of the tongue. The part that you normally see and can voluntarily move makes up the majority of your tongue. If cancer originates in this portion of the tongue, it is usually called oral cancer.

The bottom third portion of the tongue is sometimes called the base of the tongue. This is that part of the tongue that is firmly attached to other tissue and therefore can't be voluntarily moved. You cannot directly visualize the base of your own tongue. It is also in close proximity to the throat (pharynx). If cancer originates in this portion of the tongue, it is usually called oropharyngeal cancer.

Additionally, tongue cancer is further divided by the type of tissue that it originates from. Squamous cells, for example, are long, flat, superficial cells that cover the lining of the tongue. Cancer that arises from squamous cell tissue is called squamous cell carcinoma. The vast majority of tongue cancer is squamous cell carcinoma, although there are other rare types of tongue cancer, which are named after the tissue or structures they originate from.

What Causes Tongue Cancer?

Cancer occurs when the way your cells grow becomes erratic and abnormal; specifically, they tend to grow much too quickly. Many factors can cause or increase your risk of developing cancer. Things known to increase your risk of tongue cancer include:

  • tobacco use
  • alcohol use
  • human papillomavirus (HPV) infection
  • male gender
  • certain genetic forms of anemia
  • a condition called Graft Versus Host Disease, which occurs in some patients who undergo stem cell transplants

At least one study has shown chronic periodontitis to increase the risk for tongue cancer in men. This needs to be verified through more research.

Symptoms of Tongue Cancer

Symptoms of tongue cancer can include:

  • difficulty swallowing
  • feeling like there is something in your throat (a lump or a mass)
  • sore throat
  • white or red patches on the tongue
  • a feeling of numbness in the mouth
  • unexplained bleeding from the tongue

Rarely, symptoms of tongue cancer can also include ear pain.

Diagnosing Tongue Cancer

If you you have symptoms of tongue cancer that have not gone away, you should see your doctor. If your doctor suspects tongue cancer, he or she may order one or more tests to diagnose it. Sometimes doctors use a small thin tube with a camera (called a flexible fiberoptic laryngoscope) to see in the back of your mouth and the lymph nodes in this area. Tissue biopsies may be necessary to confirm a diagnosis of tongue cancer and the type (i.e., squamous cell).

Treating Tongue Cancer

Tongue cancer is usually treated in three ways. The exact treatments are not the same for every patient. Cases that are caught very early on may only need surgical treatment, while advanced cases of tongue cancer may require all three types. The three kinds of treatment used for tongue cancer are:

  • surgery - removal of the cancerous tumor and surrounding tissue
  • radiotherapy - uses high-energy particles from radioactive elements to kill cancerous cells left behind after surgery
  • chemotherapy - the two most common types of chemotherapy used are cisplatin and fluorouracil

A Note About Human Papillomavirus (HPV)

HPV is a virus that causes cervical cancer and, more rarely, other types of cancers, such as tongue and tonsil cancer. The virus is spread through sexual activity, including oral sex. An HPV infection does not always become malignant, however. According to the CDC, 50% of men and women will at some point in their lives become infected with HPV. A recent increase in head and neck cancers has been attributed to this virus.

Prognosis of Tongue Cancer

If you are diagnosed with tongue cancer, your doctor may give you a prognosis. It is important to remember that some people with a very poor prognosis are able to beat their illness while some of those with a very positive prognosis may succumb to their cancer. A prognosis is only a guess based on the information of previous patients. It does not necessarily determine your personal experience.

In general, if tongue cancer is caught early, it can be cured, but the longer it is present and goes without treatment, the less likely it is to be cured. For this reason, if you have symptoms of tongue cancer, you should see your doctor as soon as possible. For more specific information on the prognosis of tongue cancer, visit the American Cancer Society.


The American Cancer Society. Oral Cavity and Oral Pharyngeal Cancer. Accessed: July 27, 2012 from http://www.cancer.org/Cancer/OralCavityandOropharyngealCancer/DetailedGuide/oral-cavity-and-oropharyngeal-cancer-what-is-oral-cavity-cancer

CDC. Genital HPV Infection Facts Sheet. Accessed: July 27, 2012 from http://www.cdc.gov/std/hpv/stdfact-hpv.htm/

Medscape. Malignant Tumors of the Base of the Tongue. Accessed: July 27, 2012 from http://emedicine.medscape.com/article/847955-overview

Pubmed.gov. Chronic Periodontitis and the Risk of Tongue Cancer. Accessed: July 27, 2012 from http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17515503

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