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Types of Lip Cancer

Doctor speaking to patient about lip cancer

Lip cancer is the most common type of oral cavity (mouth) cancer. It occurs when cancer develops on one or both lips, often as a result of preventable causes such as tobacco use, heavy alcohol consumption and prolonged periods of time spent in the sun. Roughly 40,000 cases of lip cancer are diagnosed every year in the United States.

There are several types of cancer that can affect the lips, including:

  • Squamous cell carcinoma – The most common type of lip cancer is squamous cell carcinoma, a form of nonmelanoma skin cancer that originates in the squamous cells that line the lips.
  • Melanoma – A more dangerous form of skin cancer, melanoma may develop in the lips’ melanocytes (pigment-producing cells) or on the inside of the mouth, a condition known as mucosal melanoma.
  • Lymphoma – Although rare, lymphoma (cancer of immune cells called lymphocytes) can occur in the oral cavity and cause symptoms like pain and swelling.  
  • Minor salivary gland cancers – These malignancies affect the glands that produce saliva. There are multiple types of minor salivary gland cancers, including adenoid cystic carcinoma (ACC), polymorphous low-grade adenocarcinoma and mucoepidermoid carcinoma.

Symptoms of lip cancer 

The symptoms of lip cancer can occur on one or both lips, although they most often affect the bottom lip. Common lip cancer symptoms include:

  • A lump or thickened area
  • Pain or numbness
  • A sore or blister that does not heal
  • Bleeding  
  • Red or white patches
  • Jaw swelling

Lip cancer can appear differently based on a person's skin tone as well as the type of cancer and its stage, so it's important to promptly speak with a medical professional if any unusual symptoms or visible changes around the mouth area occur.  

Lip cancer stages  

Oral cancers like lip cancer are usually staged according to the American Joint Committee on Cancer (AJCC) TNM system, which considers the extent of the primary tumor (T), lymph node involvement (N) and how far the cancer has spread, or metastasized (M). Cancer is staged from 0 to 4, with 4 being the most advanced stage.

Based on the above factors, lip cancer may be classified as:

  • Stage 0 – The cancer is confined to the top layer of cells.
  • Stage 1 – The cancer remains smaller than 2 centimeters across and has not grown into deeper tissues.
  • Stage 2 – The cancer is between 2 and 4 centimeters across and has not grown into deeper tissues.
  • Stage 3 – The cancer is larger than 4 centimeters across, or it has spread to a lymph node.
  • Stage 4 – There are multiple substages of stage 4 lip cancer, beginning with stage 4A cancer that has grown into surrounding bone, the alveolar nerve in the jawbone, the floor of the mouth or the skin surrounding the mouth. As the cancer progresses, it is classified as stage 4B followed by 4C.

Lip cancer diagnosis

Diagnosing lip cancer typically begins with an exam to evaluate physical changes around the mouth. (Dentists often spot signs of lip cancer during routine teeth cleanings.) If cancer is suspected, a soft tissue biopsy will likely be recommended to confirm or rule out a lip cancer diagnosis. From there, an imaging test such as a computed tomography (CT) scan or positron emission tomography (PET) scan may be conducted to see if cancer has spread to other areas of the body.

Treatment options for lip cancer

Cancer on the lip may be treated as a skin cancer or oral cancer depending on its type, although most cases are addressed as an oral cancer. Lip cancer treatment plans can vary, but may include:

  • Surgery to remove cancerous lesions and restore the appearance of the lip
  • Chemotherapy to attack cancer cells on the lip and throughout the body
  • Radiation therapy to kill cancer through precisely aimed X-ray beams
  • Immunotherapy to help the body fight off cancer cells
  • Targeted drug therapy to hinder cancer growth

Moffitt's approach

World-class treatment for cancer of the lip and other areas of the mouth is available at Moffitt Cancer Center. Patients in our Head and Neck Cancer Program benefit from the diverse expertise of medical oncologists, radiation oncologists, head and neck surgeons and other specialists who collaborate to create an individualized treatment plan for every patient. Our team is also working to improve oral cancer treatment options through a robust clinical trial program that gives eligible patients access to the latest therapies before they're made widely available. Thanks to our steadfast commitment to research and innovation, Moffitt has been designated as a Comprehensive Cancer Center by the National Cancer Institute.

Whether you’d like to receive a second opinion for lip cancer treatment or are concerned about skin cancer on the lips or a suspicious mouth sore, Moffitt is an excellent place to turn. To request an appointment, call 1-888-663-348 or submit a new patient registration form online. As Florida’s top cancer hospital, Moffitt is accelerating access to progressive cancer treatment by connecting patients to specialists within 24 hours.

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