Tongue Cancer

National Organization for Rare Disorders, Inc.

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It is possible that the main title of the report Tongue Cancer is not the name you expected. Please check the synonyms listing to find the alternate name(s) and disorder subdivision(s) covered by this report.


  • Cancer of the Tongue
  • Carcinoma of the Tongue
  • Tongue, Carcinoma

Disorder Subdivisions

  • None

General Discussion

Tongue cancers are oral cancers that are differentiated by their location in the mouth and on the tongue. If the cancer is on the forward portion of the tongue, it is known as a squamous cell cancer of the oral tongue. If the cancer is located towards the rear third of the tongue, it is known as a squamous cell cancer at the base of the tongue.

The characteristics of these two cancers are quite distinct, and reflect the differences in their origins. The difference in origins is also the reason that the treatment of these two forms of tongue cancer is quite different. Oral cancers are relatively rare, representing only about three percent of all cancers.


Generally, the first sign of squamous cell cancer of the oral tongue is a pinkish-red sore at the side of the tongue that persists and seems not to heal over time. Quite often, the sore bleeds easily if bitten or touched. If this occurs, it is recommended that the person see a physician, especially if the person is older than fifty.

In its earliest developmental period, squamous cell cancer of the base of the tongue is asymptomatic. This means that the cancer does not make itself known until later in its growth. However, symptoms may begin with pain in the tongue and surrounding tissue, changes in voice tones and sounds, and difficulty in swallowing that may lead to feelings of bloat or fullness. Because the early symptoms are dormant, most squamous cell cancers of the base of the tongue are further advanced by the time a patient sees a physician. Many patients will have already had squamous cancer cells in the lymph nodes of the neck (metastases).


The cause of tongue cancer is unknown. Inadequate oral hygiene and thickened white patches on the mucous membranes of the oral cavity (leukoplakia) may be a cause. The disorder is statistically linked with alcoholism, cirrhosis of the liver, excessive smoking, and syphilis.

Irritation by jagged teeth, projecting fillings and ill-fitting dentures may also be factors contributing to development of tongue cancer. As in some other types of cancer, the possibility of a genetic predisposition to malignancy may also be a factor.

Affected Populations

Tongue cancer is most common in men over age 60. It is rare in people, particularly women, under age 40.

Standard Therapies


Examination of a sample of tissue from the site of the suspected cancer by a qualified pathologist is the key to diagnosis. MRI and/or CAT scans may be ordered to determine the location and size of the growth. This examination will also determine the stage of the disorder (how advanced it may be), which in turn, will help determine the method and pace of treatment.


Not all specialists agree on the form of treatment of an oral tumor at any particular stage. Most do, however, agree that any dental work that the patient may need should be taken care of before treatment of the cancer begins and that smoking must stop. Treatment usually consists of surgery followed by radiation therapy. Chemotherapy is less commonly administered.

Controversy exists among cancer specialists (oncologists) and among head & neck surgeons regarding which of several surgical procedures yields better outcomes. Controversy also exists regarding the used of implanted radioactive seeds (brachytherapy) as an alternative to external beam therapy. Regardless, early diagnosis and treatment is imperative, especially in individuals under 20 years of age.

Investigational Therapies

Information on current clinical trials is posted on the Internet at All studies receiving U.S. government funding, and some supported by private industry, are posted on this government web site.

For information about clinical trials being conducted at the NIH Clinical Center in Bethesda, MD, contact the NIH Patient Recruitment Office:

Tollfree: (800) 411-1222

TTY: (866) 411-1010


For information about clinical trials sponsored by private sources, contact:



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Palme CE, Gullane PJ, Gilbert RW. Current treatment options in squamous cell carcinoma of the oral cavity. Surg Oncol Clin N Amer. 2004;13:47-70.

Lin DT, Subbaramaiah K, Shah JP, et al. Cyclooxygenase-2: a novel molecular target for the prevention of treatment of head and neck cancer. Heasd Neck. 2002;24:792-99.

Sciubba JJ. Oral cancer. The importance of early diagnosis and treatment. Am J Clin Dermatol. 2001;2:239-51.

Llewellyn CD, Johnson NW, Warnakulasuriya KA. Risk factors for squamous cell carcinoma of the oral cavity in young people - a comprehensive literature review. Oral Oncol. 2001;37:401-18.

Lingen M, Sturgis EM, Kies MS. Squamous cell carcinoma of the head and neck in nonsmokers: clinical and biologic characteristics and implications for management. Curr Opin Oncol. 2001;13:176-82.

McCann MF, Macpherson LM, Gibson J. The role of the dental practitioner in detection and prevention of oral cancer: review of the literature. Dent Update. 2000;27:404-08.

Yoleri L, Mavioglu H. Total tongue reconstruction with free functional gracilis muscle transplantation: a technical note and review of the literature. Ann Plast Surg. 2000;45:181-86.

Harrison LB. Applications of brachytherapy in head and neck cancer. Semin Surg Oncol. 1997;13:177-84


Oral Cancer. What You Need To Know About. National Cancer Institute. nd. 27pp.


Oral Cancer. CancerNet. National Cancer Institute. Last modified: 12/12/2000. 17pp.


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For a Complete Report

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