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Tongue Cancer Symptoms

Tongue cancer can be hard to detect, but early diagnosis is key.

A lingering sore throat is a very common tongue cancer symptom. [©Shutterstock, 2010]
©Shutterstock, 2010
A lingering sore throat is a very common tongue cancer symptom.

Tongue Cancer Symptoms

Tongue cancer symptoms depend on the type of tongue cancer a person develops. There are two types: cancer of the oral tongue (the front two-thirds of the tongue that you can "stick out") and cancer of the base of the tongue (the back one-third of the tongue that extends down the throat). According to the American Cancer Society, tongue cancers represent 20 to 25 percent of all oral cancers, making it the most common oral cancer. It's important to note the differences between the two types of tongue cancer in order to properly spot the symptoms associated with each.

Symptoms of Tongue Cancer

General symptoms include a lingering sore throat, a sore spot on the tongue that won't go away and unexplained bleeding of the tongue. As tongue cancer progresses, those affected may also experience a stiff tongue, bad breath, constant mouth pain and difficulty eating, swallowing and breathing. People may also experience a change in their "bite," or the way their teeth or dentures fit together. Untreated tongue cancers may spread to the gums, lower jaw, lymph nodes, neck and floor of the mouth.

Specific symptoms of oral tongue cancer may include:

  • A lump on the side of the tongue large enough to touch the teeth
  • A grayish-pink or red lump
  • A lump the bleeds easily

Tongue-based cancer does not usually produce symptoms in the early stages and can be hard to detect. In later stages, this type of cancer may feel like a lump in the throat and cause voice changes, dramatic weight loss or ear pain.

Tongue Cancer Causes and Risk Factors

According to Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, some people develop cancer of the tongue with no risk factors. Tongue cancer is more common in older people, age 40 and up, although the cancer can be found in young people. It is twice as common in men, and African-American men are at greater risk than Caucasians. Smoking and drinking increase the risk of tongue cancer, with smokers being five times more likely to develop tongue cancer than nonsmokers.

The Oral Cancer Foundation provides data showing that those who have been diagnosed with certain types of Human Papilloma Virus (HPV) may have a higher risk for tongue cancer. People with HPV-related oral cancers are less likely to be smokers or drinkers. Other less common risk factors are poor nutrition and immune system suppression.

Dental Exams Offer Early Detection

Tongue cancer screenings are a routine part of any dental check up. During the exam, the dentist checks the tongue for any sores or discolored tissue. If the dentist sees anything suspicious, a sample or "brush biopsy" is taken and the cell tissues analyzed for cancerous/abnormal cells. The dentist may also request a scalpel biopsy, a procedure that usually requires local anesthesia. These tests are necessary to detect tongue cancer in its early stages, before it has had a chance to progress and spread.

Studies by the American Dental Association show that people suffering bone loss from chronic gum disease were 5.2 times more likely to have tongue cancer than those without gum disease, regardless of whether the person had used tobacco products -- another reason to get regular dental exams.

Someone at risk for tongue cancer can also perform a self-examination at home by pulling the tongue out and examining the surfaces with a mirror. Check both sides of the tongue and feel for lumps. Call for an appointment with a dentist or other health care provider if a lesion, bump or sore area on the tongue (or any symptom mentioned above) persists for more than a month. Early diagnosis and treatment of tongue cancer greatly increases the chances of survival.

Tongue Cancer Treatment

Surgical removal of a tumor is usually recommended if the tumor is small. If the cancer has spread to the lymph nodes, doctors may also remove the affected lymph nodes. Doctors may recommend radiation therapy, either alone or in combination with surgery. Although chemotherapy won't cure tongue cancer, it may be used to slow the growth of the tumor. It can be used in connection with radiation therapy as an alternative to surgery or after surgery to reduce the risk of the cancer returning.

The cure outlook for those diagnosed with tongue cancer is good if the cancer and surrounding tissue are removed before the cancer spreads to the lymph nodes.

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