When discussing the symptoms of tongue cancer, it’s important to note that this type of cancer is quite rare, and many of the warning signs to look for can be symptoms of illnesses that are unrelated to cancer. It’s also worth noting that the tongue, a muscular organ that’s covered with a mucous membrane, is only one of several areas in the mouth where cancer can develop. Additional areas include the tonsils, gums, interior lining of the cheeks, floor of the mouth and oropharynx (back of the mouth), and in less common instances, the lips and roof of the mouth. A malignancy that develops in these areas is referred to in medical terms as either oral cavity or oropharyngeal cancer, depending on where it originates.
Taken as a whole, about 54,000 cases of oral cavity or oropharyngeal cancer are diagnosed each year, according to the American Cancer Society, and only a fraction of those cases are considered cancer of the tongue. However, for people whose lifestyle habits or genetic predisposition put them at a higher risk for mouth cancer, it’s a good idea to be mindful of common tongue cancer symptoms.
What does tongue cancer look like?
In the early stages, the visible signs of tongue cancer can be hard to spot, especially if the malignancy begins at the base of the tongue behind the oral cavity. A malignancy that develops in this area is referred to as oropharyngeal tongue cancer, while a tumor that grows in the front two-thirds of the tongue is considered to be oral tongue cancer. In both types of tongue cancer, the cellular mutation that leads to cancer almost always starts in the thin, flat squamous cells that line the surface of the tongue. Hence, most tongue cancer cases are categorized as squamous cell carcinoma.
Tongue ulcers that don’t heal
One of the first signs of tongue cancer is often a pinkish-red lump on one side of the tongue. It may resemble the common canker sore, which is usually quite painful but heals within a couple of weeks. Like a canker sore, a tongue cancer growth may bleed when bitten or touched. However, unlike a canker sore, a tongue cancer ulcer:
- Is often numb to the touch, though it may cause pain in later stages
- Usually feels thick and firm like a scab
- Does not heal or go away
Red or white patches on the tongue
Another early sign that might indicate tongue cancer is the appearance of red, white or gray plaque on the tongue. Red lesions are referred to as erythroplakia, while white or gray patches are known as leukoplakia. Both types of plaque are often caused by chronic irritation from tobacco use, long-term and excessive alcohol consumption, jagged or broken teeth rubbing on the tongue or ill-fitting dentures. Leukoplakia can also be caused by certain viruses.
In most cases, these red or white lesions will go away within a few weeks after the source of irritation is eliminated. However, for a relatively small number of people with leukoplakia, the condition will progress into tongue cancer. Moreover, red lesions and patches that have a mix of red and white discoloration, sometimes called “speckled leukoplakia,” have been associated with a heightened risk for cancer development.
What does tongue cancer feel like?
Some potential tongue cancer symptoms that are not visible include:
- Persistent tongue, ear and/or jaw pain
- An irritated or sore throat that does not go away within a few days
- Chronic hoarseness
- Trouble swallowing or chewing
- Loose teeth or dentures
- The sensation that there’s something stuck in the throat
Who is at risk of developing tongue cancer?
Anyone can develop tongue cancer, but scientists have identified some factors that increase the risk. Here are a few of them:
- Tobacco use, including smoking cigarettes, cigars or pipes, chewing tobacco or inhaling snuff
- Excessive alcohol consumption
- A weakened immune system
- A human papillomavirus (HPV) infection
- Poor oral hygiene
- Chronic tongue irritation caused by broken teeth or ill-fitting dentures
- Inheritance of certain genetic mutations
When should you see a doctor or dentist for a tongue condition?
If you notice any of the tongue cancer symptoms listed above or experience mouth pain that doesn’t have an obvious cause and doesn’t go away within a few days, it’s a good idea to seek an oral cancer screening from your dentist or primary care physician. Smokers and those who use tobacco or consume large amounts of alcohol should be especially vigilant about seeking routine screenings for cancer of the tongue and other parts of the mouth.
The nonprofit Oral Cancer Foundation recommends that all adults 18 and older get oral cancer screenings as part of their annual dental exams.
What services does Moffitt offer to patients with tongue cancer?
The specialists in Moffitt Cancer Center’s well-respected Head and Neck Cancer Program offer screening and treatment for many types of oral cavity and oropharyngeal cancers, including tongue cancer. Whether you turn to us for an oral cancer screening because you’re concerned about potential tongue cancer symptoms or you’ve already received a tongue cancer diagnosis, you’ll receive prompt and individualized attention from our highly skilled team.
After a cancer diagnosis, every day counts. At Moffitt, we’re committed to supporting our patients with compassionate care through every step of their battle. In addition to delivering the highest level of patient support, our team of head and neck cancer specialists provides advanced diagnostic and treatment services for patients with tongue cancer and other types of oral cavity and oropharyngeal cancer. Our treatment options often include access to clinical trials that are not yet available in other settings.
As Florida’s top cancer hospital, we’re changing the model for cancer care. When you reach out to us, you’ll be connected to a cancer expert within one day—that’s faster than any other cancer hospital in the nation. Connect with Moffitt Cancer Center today by calling 1-888-663-3488 or filling out our online new patient registration form. A referral is not required.
American Cancer Society: Signs and Symptoms of Oral Cavity and Oropharyngeal Cancer
American Cancer Society: Risk Factors for Oral Cavity and Oropharyngeal Cancers
Dental Journal: Early detection and treatment of Speckled leukoplakia
Oral Cancer Foundation: Screening