Tongue cancer is a cancer involving the surface cells of the tongue. This can occur in the mouth, which is the oral portion of the tongue, or the throat, which is the oropharyngeal part of the tongue. Although tongue cancer accounts for only 2 to 4 percent of all cancers in the United States, patients need to understand the risk factors of the disease. Traditionally a disease associated with smoking and heavy alcohol usage, human papilloma virus (HPV) infection of the throat is increasingly becoming implicated as a risk factor in the development of this cancer. The HPV-related cancers typically present at least 10-15 years after initial exposure to the HPV virus, and tend to affect younger patients than the tongue cancers of the mouth. Regardless, early detection and treatment of tongue cancer can result in a favorable prognosis.
Tongue cancer that occurs within the mouth typically presents differently than tongue cancer that occurs within the throat. These oral tongue cancers are typically noticed by the patient as either a whitish lesion or a painful ulcer on the tongue. They can present on the top, side, or undersurface of the tongue. These are typically detected early due to their location, as they typically begin to affect or interfere with your ability to chew and eat sooner than tongue cancers of the throat.
Tongue cancers that occur within the throat may go undetected for longer, as they are typically not visible within the mouth. They often present as a neck mass, which indicates the spread of the cancer to lymph nodes within the neck. When they do affect the throat, they can cause a sore throat, a lump in the throat, and ear pain. As they increase in size, they can cause voice changes, difficulty swallowing, and bloody sputum.
To help prevent the progression of tongue cancer, early detection is extremely important. Our medical center follows unique screening protocols to help patients identify the possible signs and symptoms of tongue cancer.
Most experienced doctors diagnose tongue cancer by reviewing patients’ medical history and asking specific questions about their symptoms. Afterwards, a comprehensive physical examination of the entire oral cavity will usually be performed. Looking at the back of the throat with an endoscope, which is a thin, lighted tube inserted into the nose to visualize the throat, can help to visualize the lesion and surrounding area. Certain diagnostic tests may also be ordered. These tests may include computed tomography (CT), magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and position emission tomography (PET) scans. Ultimately, a sample of the tissue is biopsied to confirm diagnosis.
Depending on the position and type of the specific tumor, treatment for tongue cancer can vary significantly. As for most cancers, treatment options include surgery, radiation, and chemotherapy. Small cancers can sometimes be treated with one mode of treatment, whereas more advanced cancers may require all three modes of treatment. Examples of how the treatments are used include: