What is Tongue Cancer?

Niki Foster

Tongue cancer is most commonly caused by squamous cell carcinoma, cancer of the surface tissue of the tongue. Squamous cell carcinoma is one of the most common cancers and can affect many different organs. Cancer of the tongue is a form of oral cancer, which is caused by tobacco use in about 75% of cases. It can affect the oral tongue, the portion one can stick out of the mouth, or the base of the tongue, the back third of the tongue body.

Heavy alcohol use may contribute to tongue cancer.
Heavy alcohol use may contribute to tongue cancer.

Cancer of the tongue and other oral cancers are most often caused by smoking or other tobacco use, but heavy alcohol use can also contribute to the disease, especially when combined with tobacco use. Alcohol-based mouthwashes can also be problematic, even when one does not consume alcohol. In Asia, chewing betel and areca nuts is a significant risk factor for tongue cancer. The sexually transmitted disease Human Papilloma Virus (HPV) is another risk factor.

Chewing betel nuts may cause tongue cancer.
Chewing betel nuts may cause tongue cancer.

Oral tongue cancer is typically caught earlier than cancer of the tongue base, since the oral tongue is more visible. It most often presents as a lesion or ulcer on the side of the tongue. It is often small and grayish-pink to red in color. The tumor typically bleeds easily when touched or bitten. It may cause problems with talking, swallowing, and chewing.

Individuals with tongue cancer may experience difficulty swallowing.
Individuals with tongue cancer may experience difficulty swallowing.

Cancer of the tongue base usually presents as pain, difficulty swallowing, a feeling of fullness in the throat, or changes in the voice. It is often more advanced than oral tongue cancer when first noticed, since the early signs easily go undetected. In any type of suspected cancer of the tongue, a biopsy of the lesion can determine whether it is cancerous.

Quitting smoking may help reduce the risk of tongue cancer.
Quitting smoking may help reduce the risk of tongue cancer.

If the tumor is small enough, it can be surgically removed. Often, in the case of cancer of the oral tongue, surgery can be completed with no adverse effects on speech or swallowing. Radiation is another option for treating cancer of the tongue. Surgical treatment is preferable if possible because it is less expensive and less time consuming, and often as effective as radiation therapy. Since there is a limit to the amount of radiation the human body can take, surgical treatment leaves the option of radiation therapy open if it becomes necessary in the future.

Surgery is one course of action for tongue cancer.
Surgery is one course of action for tongue cancer.

Cancer of the tongue base is most often treated with radiation, while oral tongue cancer is usually treated with surgery if possible. Even if the speech or the ability to swallow are impaired, the loss is worth eradicating a potentially fatal disease. Chemotherapy can also be used for cancer of the tongue, though it is rarely the only treatment. It can be used for palliative, rather than curative, therapy, or in conjunction with other treatments.

Chewing tobacco, which can cause tongue cancer.
Chewing tobacco, which can cause tongue cancer.

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Discussion Comments


My sister was diagnosed with carcinoma of the base of tongue in April 2012, and she had three months of chemo/radio therapy. She has just been told it has come back and there is nothing more they can do for her. I need to know how long we have left with her, please.


Three days ago, my father was diagnosed with cancer of the base of the tongue (stage 1). He was not a smoker nor a heavy drinker. Reading your post, I recalled the information that my father gave to the doctors during the interview as to when did he feel pain in his tongue and when did he possibly have the lesion? My dad replied that it was after he used a certain mouthwash (do not know what brand). My dad had been using mouthwash for years and was also surprised to hear that he suspected a certain mouthwash that caused the lesion. That was two years ago. Yes, it has been that long and we did not even know it. We just found out about it a week ago when we accompanied him to the doctors.

Maybe there is some truth that strong alcohol based mouthwash can cause tongue cancer. If so, maybe someone can really make a study on this so people will become aware. We must be very careful in using this item.


is it possible that acid reflux could be associated with getting base of the tongue cancer? my father passed away recently. He was diagnosed with base of the tongue cancer, and for several years he had acid reflux. after a two year battle with cancer he lost his fight.


yeah, mouthwash has been proved to be cancer causing, due to high alcohol content. the acetaldehyde in the alcohol is carcinogenic.


My mom did not smoke or drink. She died in May. She was diagnosed last August. I miss her.


mouthwash can probably cause it due to its heavy use of alcohol.


Tobacco I've heard about, but mouthwash?! I have never heard anything that even hinted at mouthwash being a potential cause of getting tongue cancer!

Anybody know what kind of statistics mouthwash has regarding cancer?

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