Tongue Cancer: Symptoms, Complications, and Treatment


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What is Tongue Cancer?

Tongue cancer is a type of oral cancer where abnormal cells begin to grow in the patient’s tongue and form a lesion or a tumor. It falls under the category of head and neck cancer. Usually, this type of cancer develops in the squamous cells of the tongue. The most noticeable symptom of this disease is the formation of a sore which does not go away even after local application of antibiotic creams. In some cases, the patient experiences pain in the tongue due to this sore.

Tongue cancer may either occur in the front of the tongue, and it is known as “oral tongue cancer.” It may also affect the base of the tongue and Oncologists term it as “oropharyngeal cancer.”

The most common type of tongue cancer is known as “squamous cell carcinoma,” and it mostly affects the lining of the mouth, larynx, thyroid and the lining of the digestive and respiratory tract.

How does Tongue Cancer Occur?

Tongue cancer may occur due to the infection by human papillomavirus (HPV). This virus also causes cancer in the genital area of human beings like cervical cancer, and it is often sexually transmitted from one person to another. Several categories of HPV causes cancer, among them, high-risk HPV is the deadliest one.

Stages and grades of tongue cancer depend on the extent of the spread of a tumor. It indicates whether the disease is still localized or metastasized in other organs. The Oncologist uses numbers and alphabets to denote the stages of tongue cancer.

  • T represents the size of the tongue cancer tumor, and it ranges from T1 to T4. T1 means the lesion is small in size whereas T4 signifies a tumor has become large.
  • N represents whether cancer has already spread to the neck lymph nodes. Here N0 means cancer has not spread to the lymph nodes, and N3 denotes that a tumor has already spread to several lymph nodes.
  • The letter M signifies whether cancer has already metastasized to other organs or not.
  • Some schools of Oncologists also grade tongue cancer as low, moderate and high grade based on its aggressiveness.

Who is Prone to Tongue Cancer?

Individual behavior and lifestyles changes make one prone to tongue cancer. These include those who

Consume alcohol regularly

  • Smoke and chew tobacco
  • Have HPV infection
  • Have a family history of oral cancers
  • Have a deficiency of fruits and vegetables in the diet
  • Maintain poor oral hygiene

Men are more prone to tongue cancer than women. Studies have revealed that people above 55 years of age have a high risk of tongue cancer.

What are the symptoms of tongue cancer? How is tongue cancer diagnosed?

Usually, tongue cancer which develops at the base of the oral cavity does not show any signs in the early stage. If cancer develops on the front of the tongue, it may show symptoms like

  • Sore or lump on the tongue which does not heal and often bleeds easily
  • Pain in tongue especially while swallowing
  • Red or white patch on the tongue
  • Numbness in the mouth
  • Persistent sore throat


Physical examination of the mouth generally helps in diagnosis of tongue cancer. The Oncologist looks for mouth ulcers which do not heal for a long time. He also records the patient’s history like smoking or drinking habit, HPV infection, and family history of oral cancer. In addition to these, the doctor may also recommend X-Ray, MRI and CT scan. A biopsy is a confirmatory test for tongue cancer. Nowadays, doctors conduct an advanced type of brush biopsy to confirm or rule out tongue cancer. Here, the doctor rolls on a small brush over the tongue to collect samples for further analysis.

What are the complications of tongue cancer? 

If detected in the early stages, tongue cancer can be cured. However, late detection and metastasis reduce the chances of successful treatment. It may also give rise to some complications like

  • Difficulty in eating and swallowing (dysphagia)
  • Problem in speaking
  • Challenges in breathing

What is the treatment for tongue cancer?

Treatment of tongue cancer depends on the stage or size of a tumor. In the early stages, Oncologists recommend a surgery along with the test of the nearby lymph nodes to ascertain that cancer is no longer present in the body. In the advanced stages, radiation therapy, as well as chemotherapy, is a more suitable mode of treatment. Patients undergo regular follow up check-ups to make sure that cancer has not recurred in the body.

Would you like to consult a doctor for Tongue Cancer ?

Questions answered by trusted doctors

Verified User
My father is suffering from tongue cancer from last 3 yrs. He has been chosen for Ayurvedic treatment. Now he is unable to swallow also. He is under complete liquid diet includes juices and grinded rice with dal. Just drinking with difficulty.
Dr. Gladson Guddappa Uchil
ENT/ Otorhinolaryngologist, Bangalore
How unfortunate that an easily curable type of cancer patient has been misguided to Ayurvedic treatment which has only worsened his state and not progressed with regional metastases! He needs to get a PET-CT scan done to ascertain the extent of spread of the disease so that I could help him out!
Verified User
Hello! I am preparing a report on the causes, symptoms, treatments, success rate of treatments and unusual case studies of the tongue cancer. For this purpose, can a doctor or a medical student please inform me what are the most common as well as rare tongue cancer symptoms? Your responses will help me a lot!
Dr. Rahul S Kanaka
Surgical Oncologist, Bangalore
This can not be done without meeting personally
Dr. Archana Prathipati
Radiation Oncologist, Hyderabad
Could not be discussed in a public forum
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Did you know?

HPV vaccination can help tongue cancer

A Complete course of HPV vaccination can help in the prevention of the development of tongue cancer later in life.

Fruits and Vegetables in the diet

Incorporating a generous dose of fruits and vegetables in the diet can minimise the risk of tongue cancer. Fruits contain anti-oxidants which fight off the free radicals which are carcinogenic

Medical Treatment

Transoral robotic surgery is a new method of removing tumours from the base of the tongue.

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Home Remedies


Lycopene in tomatoes is a potent antioxidant which helps to cure tongue cancer. Including this vegetable in the diet can prevent the development of oral cancer later in life. Always opt for the fresh vegetables instead of the canned varieties as the latter contain preservatives which are harmful to the body.


Turmeric helps in curing tongue cancer. It contains curcumin which prevents the formation of cancer-causing enzymes in the body.


Powder of dried drumstick leaves helps in treating tongue cancer. Add one teaspoon of this powder to a cup of boiling water and drink it regularly after cooling to room temperature to treat tongue cancer.