A type of oral cancer, tongue cancer occurs when cells around the front of the tongue—most often the squamous cells—become cancerous. Cancer that grows toward the base of the tongue is referred to as oropharyngeal cancer.

Causes of Tongue Cancer

Cancer is caused by rapid and abnormal cell reproduction. While the factors that set cancer growth in motion are unclear, there are several behaviors and characteristics that are known to increase the risk of developing tongue cancer. They include:

  • Smoking (smokers are five times more likely to have tongue cancer than people who don’t smoke)
  • Chewing tobacco
  • Drinking alcohol in excess
  • Being infected with the human papillomavirus (HPV)
  • Having a family history of mouth cancers
  • Eating a diet high in processed or red meats and low in fruits and vegetables
  • Maintaining poor oral hygiene

Tongue cancer is most common in men over age 50, although anyone can be diagnosed with this condition.

Tongue Cancer Symptoms

The main symptom of tongue cancer is a visible sore or lump on the tongue that might be painful. This growth may:

  • Rub against your teeth
  • Look like an ulcer, with pink or grey coloring
  • Bleed easily Appear as a red or white patch

Cancer that develops toward the base of the tongue—known as oropharyngeal cancer—typically doesn’t cause noticeable symptoms in its early stages. As the disease progresses, symptoms may include:

  • Difficult or painful swallowing
  • Ear pain
  • Throat pain
  • A feeling of fullness in the throat
  • Changes in voice

Mouth numbness, bleeding, jaw pain and tongue stiffness may also be present.

Signs of tongue cancer are sometimes caught by physicians and dentists during routine appointments, but it’s important to perform monthly self-exams and promptly speak with a medical professional if you notice any unusual changes to your tongue, gums or the inside of your cheeks.

Tongue Cancer Diagnosis

To diagnose or rule out tongue cancer, a physician will first examine a patient’s mouth and throat and ask questions regarding personal and medical history. From there, imaging tests—such as a mouth X-ray or CT scan—may be performed, followed by a biopsy to test a small piece of tissue for cancerous cells.

Treatments for Tongue Cancer

Early diagnosis is key to successful tongue cancer treatment. Surgery can be performed to excise small tumors from the tongue, or in more advanced cases, to remove surrounding lymph nodes and tissues where the cancer has spread. Reconstructive surgery may also be recommended to help restore speech and swallowing abilities following surgical treatment.