Tongue Cancer

What is tongue cancer?

Several types of cancer grow in the tongue, but squamous cell carcinoma is the most common. Squamous cells are thin, flat cells that line the mouth and other organs.

There are two types of tongue cancer: 

  • Cancer of the oral tongue. The front two-thirds of the tongue that you can stick out is called the oral tongue. 
  • Cancer of the base of the tongue. The base is the back one-third of the tongue that extends down the throat.
Related Cancers

What causes tongue cancer, and what are the risk factors?

Some people develop cancer of the tongue with no risk factors. The cancer is more common in older age groups, age 40 and up, although it may be found in young people. It is twice as common in men. Other risk factors are:

  • Smoking and drinking alcohol. Smokers are five times more likely to develop tongue cancer than nonsmokers.
  • Human papillomavirus (HPV), a sexually transmitted disease. HPV 16 and HPV 18 increase the risk of tongue cancer.
  • African-American men are at greater risk than Caucasians.

What are the symptoms of tongue cancer?

Oral Tongue Cancer
  • A lump on the side of the tongue that touches the teeth.
  • The lump often looks like an ulcer and is grayish-pink to red.
  • The lump bleeds easily if bitten or touched.

Base of Tongue Cancer

  • The tumor is often difficult to see in the early stages, so it is usually diagnosed when it is larger.
  • There are few symptoms in the early stages.
  • In later stages, the cancer may cause pain, a sense of fullness in the throat, difficulty swallowing, the feeling of a lump in the neck or throat, voice changes or ear pain.

How is tongue cancer diagnosed?

To make a diagnosis, the doctor will take a medical history and ask specific questions about symptoms. A patient's tongue and neck will be examined and a small, long-handled mirror will be used to look down the throat.

Several tests are used to aid in the diagnosis. These tests include:

  • X-rays of the mouth and throat, including CT (computed tomography) scans (X-rays that show images in thin sections).
  • PET scans (positron emission tomography), which use radioactive materials to identify excessive activity in an organ. This may indicate the tumor is growing.
  • Tongue cancer usually requires a biopsy, a small sample of tissue that is removed from a tumor to diagnose cancer. After the surgeon removes the tissue, a pathologist will examine the cells under a microscope. There are different methods to obtain a biopsy:
    • Fine needle aspiration biopsy. A thin needle is inserted into the tumor mass and a sample is drawn out by suction into a syringe.
    • Incisional biopsy. A sample is removed with a scalpel (surgical knife).
    • Punch biopsy. A small circular blade removes a round area of tissue.

How is tongue cancer treated?

Surgery, chemotherapy and radiation therapy are used to treat tongue cancer.


Oral Tongue
Surgical removal of the primary tumor might be the only treatment needed for small oral tongue cancers. If the tumor is large, it may have spread to lymph nodes in the neck. When this occurs the surgeon may recommend removal of the affected lymph nodes in the neck.

Most small cancers of the oral tongue leave little cosmetic or functional changes after they are removed.

Larger tumors can spread and make it hard to swallow. Surgery for large tumors also affects speech and swallowing. With the latest reconstructive techniques, our doctors are able to restore most speech and swallowing problems.


Base of the Tongue
Tumors on the base of the tongue are usually larger when diagnosed because in the early stages the tumor is difficult to see. The only early symptom is ear pain. Voice changes and difficult swallowing occur later.

Because base of the tongue cancer is diagnosed later, the cancer may have already spread to the neck. The affected lymph nodes frequently need to be removed.

Radiation Therapy

Radiation therapy, including intensity modulated radiation therapy, stops cancer cells from dividing and slows the growth of the tumor. Radiotherapy also destroys cancer cells and can shrink or eliminate tumors. Intensity modulated radiation therapy allows the use of more effective radiation doses with fewer side effects than conventional radiotherapy techniques.

Radiation therapy involves five to six weeks of daily treatments.


Chemotherapy is prescribed for different reasons:

  • Together with radiotherapy as an alternative to surgery (called chemoradiation)
  • After surgery to decrease the risk of the cancer returning
  • To slow the growth of a tumor and control symptoms when the cancer cannot be cured (palliative treatment)

Key points

  • People can get cancer in the oral tongue — the part you can stick out — and the base of the tongue, which extends down the throat.
  • The cancer is more common in people 40 and older.
  • Tongue cancer can be treated with surgery, radiation therapy and chemotherapy.
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