Tongue cancer: Symptoms, pictures, and outlook

Tongue cancer is a type of mouth cancer, or oral cancer, that usually develops in the squamous cells on the surface of the tongue. It can cause tumors or lesions. The most noticeable signs of tongue cancer are a sore on the tongue that does not heal and a painful tongue.

Cancer can develop in two different areas of the tongue. Tongue cancer develops at the front of the tongue, while cancer at the back of the tongue is known as oropharyngeal cancer.

Symptoms of oral cancer can include:

  • red or red and white patches (oral leukoplakia) that appear on the lining of the mouth or the tongue
  • sores and mouth ulcers that will not heal
  • a sore throat or pain when swallowing
  • a feeling that there is something lodged in the throat
  • a painful tongue
  • a hoarse voice
  • difficulty moving the jaw or tongue
  • neck or ear pain
  • loose teeth
  • swelling in the area that remains for more than three 3 weeks
  • a lump in the mouth
  • thickening of the lining of the mouth
  • dentures that no longer fit correctly

Many of the early signs of mouth cancers can be hard to spot, so people may not notice any signs or symptoms when the cancer develops initially.

People who are more at risk of mouth cancer, such as those who smoke or drink excessively, should stay vigilant to any early signs. They should also schedule regular appointments with a doctor or dentist who can examine their mouth and identify any issues.

Tongue cancer symptoms

The most common type of tongue cancer is called squamous cell carcinoma. Squamous cells are thin, flat cells that are present on the surface of the skin and the tongue, in the lining of the digestive and respiratory tracts, and in the lining of the mouth, throat, thyroid, and larynx.

The primary symptoms of tongue cancer are a painful tongue and the development of a sore on the tongue. Additional symptoms may include:

  • pain in the jaw or throat
  • pain when swallowing
  • feeling as though something is catching in the throat
  • a stiff tongue or jaw
  • problems swallowing or chewing food
  • a red or white patch forming on the lining of the mouth or tongue
  • a tongue ulcer that will not heal
  • numbness in the mouth
  • bleeding from the tongue without reason
  • a lump on the tongue that does not go away

The symptoms of tongue cancer are similar to those of other oral cancers, and they may also not be evident in the early stages of the disease.

It is also possible for people to have some of these symptoms without having tongue cancer or another type of oral cancer.

Oral leukoplakia

Squamous cell carinoma of the tongue

Oral carcinoma

Anyone who is concerned that they might have tongue cancer should make an appointment with a doctor as soon as possible.

At the appointment, the doctor is likely to spend time:

  • asking about any relevant medical history, including family medical history
  • examining the tongue and mouth
  • examining the lymph nodes to see if there is any enlargement

If a doctor suspects that tongue cancer is present, they will perform a biopsy. This will involve them removing some tissue and sending it off for testing.

If the biopsy results confirm cancer, a doctor may recommend a CT scan or MRI scan, which will show whether or not cancer has spread to other parts of the body.

  • quitting smoking
  • avoiding chewing tobacco products or betel
  • limiting alcohol intake or avoiding it completely
  • eating a varied, healthful diet that includes lots of fruit and vegetables
  • practicing good dental hygiene by brushing and flossing regularly and attending regular dental appointments
  • receiving a full course of the HPV vaccine
  • practicing safe sex and using a dental dam for oral sex

How is tongue cancer treated?

People with tongue cancer will usually require surgery to remove the cancerous tissue. Surgeons can generally remove smaller tumors in a single operation.

Multiple and more complicated operations may be necessary if larger tumors are present or if the cancer has spread. The surgeon may also need to remove part of the tongue. If this is the case, they will attempt to rebuild the tongue using skin or tissue from other parts of the body.

Surgery that involves the removal of part or all of the tongue is called a glossectomy. Although doctors will attempt to minimize the damage to the mouth during the procedure, some side effects are inevitable.

Glossectomy can affect:

  • speaking
  • eating
  • breathing
  • swallowing

In addition to surgery, some people may have radiation or chemotherapy treatment to kill any cancerous cells that remain.


The outlook for a person with tongue cancer depends on its stage at diagnosis, and the success of the treatment.

According to statistics, 83.7 percent of people with stage 1 cancer of the mouth or pharynx will survive for 5 years or more. This compares to 39.1 percent of people who have cancer that has spread.

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