Tongue cancer is often grouped with other oral cancers such as cancer of the hard palette, throat cancer and even lip cancer, though the medical community recognizes that tongue cancer is a distinct condition with its own set of risk factors, symptoms and treatment options.
Tongue cancer is a subset of head and neck cancers. In the case of tongue cancer sqaumous cells of the tongue expand uncontrollably creating a tumorous growth. If caught early, surgery can often remove the cancerous growth before it metastasizes and spreads to other parts of the body. So, early diagnosis and treatment is highly recommended.
But what do you look for? Tongue cancer isn’t something most of us think about – at least not often. However, knowing what to look for may get you to a specialist sooner rather than later, preventing a serious problem from becoming an even more serious problem.
Who’s At Risk
Determining if you’re in the “high-risk” category is fairly straightforward. Detecting tongue cancer often occurs during a routine dental exam or a physical at the family physician’s office.
The risk factors are well known, enabling you to determine if, indeed, you’re in the high risk group.
Males versus Females
Men are more likely to receive a diagnosis of tongue cancer than women, in part because of lifestyle differences. For example, the use of tobacco is a common cause of the onset of tongue cancer and since men are more likely to use tobacco than women, more men are diagnosed with the condition than women.
Tongue cancer becomes more likely as we age. People over the age of 40 are more likely to develop tongue cancer than younger people. This doesn’t preclude young people from developing the condition but if you’re 40 years old or older, the likelihood of developing tongue cancer increases.
With this in mind, make sure your dentist or family doctor checks for tongue cancer the older you become.
Poor Oral or Dental Hygiene
Brushing regularly won’t prevent tongue cancer but it will lower the risk of getting the disease. Brush and floss after each meal and have a dental cleaning every six months to ensure that your dental and oral hygiene are at optimum levels.
Irritation of the Mucous Membranes
The mucous membranes produce saliva and mucous that’s used to break down the foods we eat. In fact, chewing food is the first step in the digestive process. Saliva contains enzymes that help start the break-down of food into a form that can be used by the body by extracting nutrients in food.
Irritation of mucous membranes and salivary glands occurs through the use of tobacco and alcohol. When used in combination, often the case, the risk of developing tongue cancer increases accordingly. And the longer these substances are used the greater the chances of developing tongue cancer.
History of Mouth Ulcers
If you experience ulcers inside the oral cavity you’re at greater risk of developing tongue cancer than those people who don’t develop what we sometimes call canker sores.
Again, while canker sores are not a definitive symptom of tongue cancer a history of canker sores over a long period of time increases the chances of developing tongue cancer.
Many cancers are now attributed to genetic or hereditary conditions. Thus, if cancer runs in the family you may be more susceptible to developing tongue cancer. If oral cancer runs in the family, the risk factors are increased.
Symptoms of Tongue Cancer
Recognizing the early symptoms of tongue cancer is often the best defense against the disease. A single symptom does NOT necessarily indicate the presence of tongue cancer. However, if two or more symptoms are present, see your doctor as soon as possible. Again, tongue cancer can be treated more effectively when it is detected early.
So, what should you look for when performing your own diagnosis?
Are You in the “High Risk” Group
Are you a male, over 40 years of age who smokes and/or drinks alcohol? Do you get a lot of canker sores? Does cancer run in the family? If you’re in the high risk group, obviously you should take any symptoms seriously and visit with a specialist in the treatment of oral cancers.
Lesions, a Lump or Ulcer on the Tongue
Any kind of abnormal growth on the tongue should be viewed as a warning sign. The lesion may appear on the upper region of the tongue or on the underside of the tongue where the tongue rests on the floor of the mouth.
Again, a lesion or a lump on the tongue doesn’t automatically indicate tongue cancer but it is an early symptom and, therefore, worth having checked. BTW, your doctor will take a small piece of a possible cancerous lump, send it out for testing and, from the results, determine the best course of treatment. When caught early, tongue cancer is curable. When left untreated, the cancer will spread to other parts of the body and that’s something you DON’T want to happen.
Difficulty swallowing can be caused by anything from a bad cold to tongue cancer to other forms or oral cancer so don’t panic if you have difficulty swallowing for a day or two. However, if the condition persists, or gets worse, get yourself to the nearest oncologist and have that thing tested. And the sooner the better. That’s a fact.
Mouth Sores or General Mouth Soreness
An open sore in the oral cavity can be caused by something as simple as eating a hot taco and burning the roof of your mouth to too much acidic foods to, yes, a form of oral cancer like tongue cancer.
Again, if the condition goes away in a day or two, there’s probably nothing to worry about, though it’s always better to err on the side of caution. On the other hand, if your mouth and tongue are sore for days or weeks, get yourself to a specialist. Start with the family physician who can quickly check for symptoms in her office.
This physician – a general practitioner usually – can then refer you to an oncologist as needed. Also, if you accidently walked into a doorway and hit your mouth, well, you probably DON’T have mouth cancer. Just watch out for those doors.
A cancer quickly kills nerve cells as it spreads. Numbness, especially in, under or on top of the tongue, may indicate a more serious problem – especially if it doesn’t go away on its own. See a doctor – pronto.
You may not notice a change in your speech but others will. If you’re having difficulty speaking because your tongue has swollen or has difficulty moving within the oral cavity, it may indicate a problem. Not necessarily cancer, but a problem nonetheless.
This one is a no-brainer. If it hurts when you chew your food, and there’s no other underlying cause of the soreness that you can identify (a sore tooth, for example) it’s time to make that appointment for an initial consultation. Once again, start with the family physician, go over the symptoms and take it from there. It could be s simple tear in the lower tongue tissue, or it could be something that needs attention like today. Don’t deny yourself help when you think you need it. Your doctor, your family and friends won’t think less of you if you see a doctor for what could be a serious medical condition – even if it is nothing.
Just do it.
Bleeding From the Tongue or Other Parts of the Mouth
This can indicate that you’re brushing too hard, causing the gums to bleed, or it could indicate a more serious problem like tongue cancer. Do you want to wait to find out which it is? Of course not.
If you taste blood in your mouth – even when you haven’t brushed for a few hours or haven’t eaten anything for a while, that symptom could indicate a more serious problem – one that needs medical attention.
The bottom line is this: you’re the best advocate you have for the detection of tongue cancer. Your dentist might miss it. your periodontist might chalk it up to deep scaling. Your family physician might write it off as a side effect of smoking (expect a lecture on the 253 reasons to quit smoking). The point is, it all comes down to you and taking control of your own health.
Your doctor can treat you. Your dentist MAY identify a suspicious lump, but you’re the one who has to take charge. You’re the one who has to keep pushing on until you know, for certain, the causes of these symptoms. They could be nothing – or they could be something that could have very serious consequences down the road.
One final questions: are you willing to take the risk? The prudent individual isn’t willing to take the risk so get help as soon as any of these symptoms appear and hang around for more than a few days.
Tongue cancer is a serious condition but a treatable condition. Remarkable strides in treatment have been made in just the past few years with the introduction of robotic surgery (highly accurate) to less disruptive chemo treatments. In fact, people diagnosed with tongue cancer, caught early, live long, fruitful, satisfying lives.
So can you – if you recognize the symptoms and advocate for your own good health.
It starts with admitting that there might be a problem and foregoing denial. Get help when you need it.
Life will be better for you and your loved ones when you’ve addressed tongue cancer and you’re in remission.
You get your life back and that’s something you can’t put a price on so act today if you have any of these symptoms of tongue cancer.