This is one of several kinds of oral (mouth) cancers. Like other cancers, it happens when cells divide out of control and form a growth, or tumor.
There are two types. One is called oral tongue cancer because it affects the part you can stick out. The other happens at the base of your tongue, where it connects to your throat. This type, called oropharyngeal cancer, is often diagnosed after it has spread to the lymph nodes in your neck. Tongue cancer is less common than many other types. Most people who get it are older adults. It’s rare in children.
One of the first signs of tongue cancer is a lump or sore on the side of your tongue that doesn’t go away. It may be pinkish-red in color. Sometimes the sore will bleed if you touch or bite it.
You may also have:
- Pain in or near your tongue
- Changes in your voice, like sounding hoarse
- Trouble swallowing
If you have a sore on your tongue or in your mouth that doesn’t get better in a couple of weeks, see your doctor.
If the problem is at the base of your tongue, you may not notice any symptoms. Your dentist may find signs of tongue cancer during a checkup, or your doctor might notice something during a regular exam.
The human papillomavirus (HPV) can cause cancers on the base of the tongue. HPV also can infect your genital area and cause cervical cancer, penile cancer, and anal cancer. It’s the most common sexually transmitted infection. There are many types of HPV. The ones that raise your odds of getting cancer are called high-risk HPV.
Other things that may raise your chances of getting tongue cancer include:
- Tobacco use
- Alcohol use
- Jagged teeth
- Not taking care of your teeth and gums
Your genes also may play a role in whether you’re likely to get tongue cancer.
Your doctor will examine your mouth and ask questions about your symptoms. They may recommend an X-ray or CT (computerized tomography) scan — several X-rays are taken from different angles and put together to show a more detailed picture. They also may take a sample of tissue from your mouth to test (a biopsy).
Your treatment will depend on where your tumor is and how big it is. Surgery is often the best way to remove a tumor from the part of your tongue you can see. Your doctor will probably take out some healthy tissue and nearby lymph nodes as well, to make sure all the cancer is gone.
If the cancer is on the back of your tongue, you may have radiation therapy (X-rays and other radiation). Sometimes the best treatment is a combination of chemotherapy, or cancer-fighting drugs, and radiation. You might need therapy afterward to help you chew, move your tongue, swallow, and speak better.
You’ll need regular checkups to make sure the cancer hasn’t come back.
We know that many cases of base-of-the-tongue cancer are caused by HPV. Some things that may make you less likely to get this type of cancer are:
- Get vaccinated for HPV, depending on your age. Speak to your doctor about your options.
- If you are sexually active, use latex condoms every time you have sex.
- Don’t use tobacco in any form.
- Avoid heavy or frequent alcohol use.
- Take good care of your teeth and gums.