Cancer of the tongue: causes, symptoms and treatment

Cancer of the tongue: causes, symptoms and treatment

Julie Scott, DNP
Julie Scott, DNP

Tongue cancer is a type of cancer that grows in the tongue. It is often named based on the part of the tongue that is affected, either on the front of the tongue, back of the tongue, or base of the tongue.

Factors that can make someone at higher risk of developing tongue cancer include:

  • Heavy alcohol use
  • Tobacco use
  • Poor dental hygiene
  • Being of the male sex


Symptoms of tongue cancer can vary for each person, but some common symptoms can include the following:

  • Non-healing sore or ulcer on the tongue
  • Bleeding from the sore or ulcer area
  • Pain in the tongue
  • Difficulty swallowing
  • Swelling of lymph nodes in the neck
  • Ear pain


The ultimate diagnosis of tongue cancer will be made once a biopsy is obtained. When someone is suspected of having tongue cancer, they will likely have a thorough exam, in which the tongue and oral cavity will be inspected. A biopsy may be taken for an official diagnosis if a suspicious lesion is seen.

When cancer is confirmed, imaging tests will likely be ordered. Standard imaging tests can include CT scans, X-rays, MRIs, and PET scans. These tests can look to see if cancer cells have spread to other body areas.

Once a diagnosis is made and imaging studies are done, the cancer is given a stage to describe how advanced the cancer is.


The exact treatment for tongue cancer will be determined once the diagnosis is made and the cancer stage is known.

Surgery may be recommended for tongue cancer. The surgery that will be required is based on the tumor size and if any lymph nodes have cancer. Surgery can include removing part of the tongue or can include removal of the entire tongue.

Radiation therapy is a treatment that may be used as well. During radiation, high-energy beams are directed at the cancer cells to kill them.

Chemotherapy is another treatment that may be recommended as well. Chemotherapy is a medication that is given to kill cancer cells. Sometimes chemotherapy and radiation therapy are used at the same time.

If you’ve been diagnosed with tongue cancer, talk to your cancer team about the specifics of your cancer. They can help you understand your diagnosis and how best to treat it.

Early detection is essential for the successful treatment of tongue cancer. If you experience any symptoms, be sure to see your doctor immediately. And remember, knowledge is power: arm yourself with information about this disease to best protect your health.

Julie Scott, DNP
Julie Scott, DNP
Julie is an oncology certified Oncology Nurse Practitioner with over a decade of medical oncology experience. In addition to her clinical work, she is an accomplished healthcare writer providing oncology content for various publications. She also serves as an adjunct faculty member for a Master's nursing program and a chair for Doctoral nursing students.

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