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Tongue cancer

Tongue cancer is classed as a mouth or oropharyngeal cancer. We have detailed information about mouth and oropharyngeal cancer. But this page gives you some brief information about tongue cancer, including


What tongue cancer is

There are two parts to your tongue, the oral tongue and the base of the tongue. Cancer can develop in either part. The oral tongue is the part you see when you poke your tongue out at someone. This is the front two thirds of your tongue. Cancers that develop in this part of the tongue come under a group of cancers called mouth (oral) cancer.

The base of the tongue is the back third of the tongue. This part is very near your throat (pharynx). Cancers that develop in this part are called oropharyngeal cancers (pronounced oar-o-farin-gee-al).


Types of tongue cancer

The most common type of tongue cancer is squamous cell carcinoma (SCCA). Squamous cells are the flat, skin like cells that cover the lining of the mouth, nose, larynx, thyroid and throat. Squamous cell carcinoma is the name given to a cancer that starts in these cells.


Symptoms of tongue cancer

The symptoms of tongue cancer may include

  • A red or white patch on the tongue, that will not go away
  • A sore throat that does not go away
  • A sore spot (ulcer) or lump on the tongue that does not go away
  • Pain when swallowing
  • Numbness in the mouth that will not go away
  • Unexplained bleeding from the tongue (that is not caused by biting your tongue or other injury)
  • Pain in the ear (rare)

It is important to remember that these symptoms may be due to a less serious medical condition. But it is best to check symptoms with your GP just to make sure.

The photos below give you an idea of what tongue cancers can look like, but remember that they might appear differently to this. Contact your GP or dentist if you notice anything abnormal.

This picture shows cancer on the side of the tongue

Picture showing cancer on the side of the tongue

And below is a picture of a red patch underneath the tongue

Picture of a red patch underneath the tongue


Risks and causes of tongue cancer

We don’t know the exact causes of most head and neck cancers, but several risk factors have been identified. Smoking tobacco (cigarettes, cigars and pipes) and drinking a lot of alcohol are the main risk factors for cancers of the head and neck in the western world. The HPV virus transmitted through sexual contact is another risk factor. There is more information about the risks and causes of mouth cancer in the mouth cancer section.


Treating tongue cancer

As with many types of cancer, diagnosing your cancer early means it will be easier to control and possibly cure it. The treatment for tongue cancer depends on the size of the cancer and whether or not it has spread to the lymph nodes in your neck. You may have

  • Surgery
  • Radiotherapy
  • Chemotherapy

You may have one of these or a combination of treatments. The best treatment for very small tongue cancers is surgery. For larger tumours that have spread to the lymph nodes in the neck, you will most likely have a combination of surgery and radiotherapy. This means having an operation to remove the cancer from your tongue and the lymph nodes in your neck. You may need to have all the nodes on one or both sides of your neck removed. The operation is called a neck dissection. It lowers the risk of your cancer coming back in the future. You will then have a course of radiotherapy to help get rid of any cancer cells left behind.

If your cancer has grown quite big, you may need to have an operation to remove part or all of your tongue (a glossectomy). This is a big operation. You may also have reconstructive surgery.

If you do have a partial or complete removal of your tongue, it will permanently change your ability to speak and swallow. This can be very hard to cope with and you are likely to need a lot of support and help following your operation. It is important to talk to your doctor or specialist nurse before your operation. You can ask them about how it will affect your speech, as well as eating and drinking.

There is detailed information about treatments for mouth and oropharyngeal cancer in the mouth cancer section.


Treatment side effects

All treatments have side effects. Some are temporary but some may be permanent. Surgery to the tongue can cause problems with your speech and changes in eating and drinking.

Radiotherapy to the head and neck area can cause several side effects including a dry, sore mouth and taste changes. There is information about the side effects of radiotherapy to the mouth in the mouth cancer section.

Two common chemotherapy drugs are used to treat head and neck cancers. They are

Other drugs used less often include

You can click on the links to find out about the side effects of these drugs. There is information about the general side effects of cancer drugs in our cancer drugs section.

IMRT for head and neck cancer


Finding other people with tongue cancer

Lots of people say it helps to talk to others who know what they are going through. If you are seeing a specialist in head and neck cancer, ask them if they can put you in touch with any other patients. That way, they may be near by. But with rare cancers, it is hard to find people with the same condition. The Mouth Cancer Foundation website has an online support group that offers practical advice and support for people affected by cancers of the head and neck. Their website also provides information about tongue cancer.

Check out Cancer Chat – Cancer Research UK's discussion forum. It is a place for anyone affected by cancer to share experiences, stories and information with other people who know what you are going through. 

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Updated: 23 October 2014