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Tongue Cancer

Tongue cancer is a serious and potentially deadly form of oral cancer.

The most common form of tongue cancer is squamous cell carcinoma. When cancerous cells grow in the front two-thirds of the tongue—the part of the tongue that you can stick out of your mouth—it is considered oral cancer.

Cancer that occurs in the back third of the tongue, or the part of the tongue that extends into the throat, is considered oropharyngeal cancer.


The symptoms of tongue cancer are often painless and nonspecific. It may feel like a persistent cold or you may just think you have a sore or ulcer in your mouth that won’t go away.

It is because of these nonspecific, and often painless, symptoms that tongue cancer and other forms of oral cancer often go undetected until the later stages.

Other symptoms of tongue cancer include:

  • A grayish-pink lump or ulcer on the side of the tongue
  • Tongue pain
  • Sore throat 
  • Difficulty swallowing or chewing
  • Difficulty moving the tongue

Cancer at the base of the tongue rarely has symptoms until the later stages, which include:

  • Pain in the throat
  • Difficulty swallowing
  • Feeling like you have a lump in the throat
  • Voice changes
  • Ear pain

If you have any of these symptoms, it is important to be evaluated by an otolaryngologist. As with most  forms of cancer, early detection is the key to successful treatment.

Risk factors

Oral cancers account for approximately 2 percent to 4 percent of all cancers in the United States.

The two biggest risk factors in the development of tongue cancer are tobacco use and alcohol consumption. It is possible to develop tongue cancer without any risk factors, but it's much less common.

Males are more likely to get tongue cancer, and it's more likely to occur in those 40 or older.

The risk factors for tongue cancer are:

  • Tobacco use, including cigarettes, cigars and chewing
  • Alcohol consumption
  • Human papillomavirus (HPV) 16 and 18
  • Being African-American


The most effective form of diagnosis always begins with a thorough medical history. We will ask specific questions and delve deeper into  your symptoms to ensure the most accurate history is taken.

This will be followed by a targeted  physical examination of the entire oral cavity down into the throat.

Some diagnostic tests may also be ordered. This could include:

  • X-rays of the mouth and throat
  • Computed tomography (CT) scans
  • Positron emission tomography (PET) scans
  • Biopsy using a small tissue sample

UC Irvine’s Head and Neck Department is equipped with the latest, state-of-the-art medical diagnostic and imaging equipment to aid our physicians in the accurate diagnosis of many forms of cancer, including tongue cancer.


We offer the latest in minimally invasive surgeries and the most effective treatment options for all types of oral cancer. Treatment options for tongue cancer vary depending on the type and progression of your tumor. Early detection offers the best prognosis for tongue cancers.

Your treatment may include:


For small tongue cancers, surgical removal of the tumor is often the only form of treatment needed.  However, if it is detected late and has grown into a large tumor, there may be lymph node involvement  in the neck, which would require neck dissection, surgical removal of those affected neck lymph nodes. 

Our highly experienced head and neck surgeons combine their world class training with the latest minimally invasive surgical techniques to maximize effectiveness of the procedure while minimizing trauma to the surrounding structures.


Radiation therapy is often used with chemotherapy or before/after surgery to stop cancer cells from dividing. Dose-dependent radiation treatments are administered in order to limit cell damage to the cancerous cells, leaving normal, healthy cells intact and free from debilitating damage.

The latest form of radiation therapy is intensity-modulated radiation therapy (IMRT). With IMRT, the dose of radiation is specific to your tumor. This ensures the most effective radiation treatment while minimizing the radiation exposure of normal, healthy tissue.


Chemotherapy is used in combination with other treatment options such as surgery and/or radiation. The goal of chemotherapy is to help control the growth of the cancerous tumor.

When combined with radiation, it is referred to as chemoradiation. When administered alone to control symptoms of incurable disease, it is referred to as palliative treatment. Chemotherapy can also be administered after surgery to decrease the risk of recurrence.

Drug therapy

Often combined with other forms of treatment such as chemotherapy and radiation, prescribed medication targets the cancerous cells to disrupt cell growth at the molecular level.

For more information about our services, please call us at 714-456-7017 or request an appointment online ›

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