16 Jul 2021

Tongue cancer, everything you need to know

What is tonge cancer?

Tongue cancer is a type of cancer that develops cancer cells in the oral cavity, specifically in the tongue. It can also be classified as oropharyngeal or mouth cancer.


Mouth cancer can be classified according to its location and has several sub-sites which are the tongue, alveolar bridges, gums, buccal mucosa, retromolar trigone, hard palate and the floor of the mouth.

Depending on where this type of cancer originates, its symptoms may vary, and may present as:

  • Ulcers, sores or canker sores that keep growing, hurt and bleed.
  • Lumps on the cheeks or neck.
  • Red or white spots on the gums, tonsils, tongue or oral mucosa.
  • Sore throat or the feeling that there is something in the throat and it does not go away.
  • Problems chewing or swallowing.
  • Numbness of the tongue.
  • Jaw swollen and does not allow implants or prostheses to fit.
  • Weakening of the teeth.
  • Discomfort in the tongue and the rest of the mouth.
  • Bad smell in the mouth, accompanied by a metallic taste.
  • Bleeding on the tongue.
  • Changeable voice.
  • Weight loss.

Many of these symptoms may be related to pathologies other than cancer. If you have any of these symptoms for more than 2 weeks, we recommend that you see your dentist or doctor.

Causes of tongue cancer

There are many factors that increase the likelihood of developing tongue cancer and may be a direct cause. These risk factors associated with this type of cancer are:

  • Tobacco use, of any kind.
  • Excessive consumption of alcoholic beverages.
  • Having human papilloma virus (HPV).
  • Weakened immune system.

Tips to prevent or reduce tongue cancer:


Smoking or chewing tobacco exposes the cells in the mouth to cancer-causing substances.


Excessive alcohol consumption can irritate the cells of the mouth and make them susceptible to this type of pathology.


Exposure to ultraviolet (UV) radiation causes skin ageing and damage such as skin or mouth cancer. To reduce the risk of this type of cancer, it is advisable to use sunscreen and avoid long hours in the sun.


Regular visits to your dentist for check-ups can prevent many diseases. You can also ask for a diagnosis to detect abnormalities that may indicate pre-cancerous changes in your mouth.


The following procedures are used for the detection of oral cancer:


The dentist or doctor performs a physical examination of the mouth and lips to detect any abnormalities.


This test is based on the removal of tissue from the mouth for analysis. Analysis of the cells in the tissue can identify cancerous cells and even signs that may indicate future cancer.

Once tongue cancer has been detected, the doctor will carry out tests to identify the stage of the cancer. These tests are:


This test is performed by inserting a small camera to examine the throat. The aim of this test is to see if the cancer has spread beyond the tongue or mouth.


These diagnoses can be based on tests such as X-rays, magnetic resonance imaging, CT scans, among many others. The aim, like endoscopy, is to be able to identify whether the cancer has spread down the throat and to establish what stage it is at.


Identifying the stage of your tongue cancer helps your doctor know which treatments to follow. There are 4 stages and they indicate whether the tumour is large, small or has spread to more parts of the body. It should be clarified that the diagnosis of the stages may vary depending on where the tumour is located or whether it is a lymph node, tumour or metastasis.

To summarise we can define that the 1st stages are smaller cancers and are limited to a single area. The 4th stage is the highest stage, in this last stage the size of the cancer is larger and, usually, it has spread to other parts of the body.

Validate this information with a medical specialist


Treatment of tongue cancer depends very much on the stage and location of the cancer. However, the general health of the patient may also influence the choice of treatment.

The types of treatment are:


Surgery may be performed to remove a tumour, to remove cancer that has spread or to reconstruct part of the mouth.


Radiotherapy is a treatment used after surgery. This treatment uses high doses of x-rays or other high-powered substances to kill cancer cells and shrink tumours.


Chemotherapy often accompanies radiotherapy to increase its effectiveness. This treatment is based on introducing certain chemicals into your body to destroy cancer cells.


This procedure stimulates the body’s natural defences to attack the cancer cells. Normally the body’s immune system does not attack the cancer cells because the cancer cells produce proteins that blind the immune system.

It is usually used in patients who have advanced mouth cancer and have not responded to other treatments.

Cancer treatments are often quite aggressive and debilitating to overall health. They have a number of side effects. For example, with radiotherapy, it is often recommended that you visit your dentist before starting treatment because, especially with tongue cancer, cavities, dry mouth and damage to the jawbone often occur.

To conclude, we would like to point out that this article is for guidance only. If you have any doubts, please contact your dentist or doctor.

We must remember the importance of regular check-ups to detect any pathology early enough so that it can be treated as soon as possible.





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    Dr. Cosimo Galleti

    Dr. Cosimo Galleti is a specialist in Integrated Dentistry from the Universidad degli Studi di Messina (Italy). He has a master's degree in Integrated Dentistry in adults from the UB and is an associate professor at the UIC in the Department of Dentistry.


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