Tongue Cancer - National Organization for Rare Disorders (2023)

Last updated: April 20, 2008
Years published: 1987, 1989, 1996, 2006


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

Diseases Overview

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.

Signs & Symptoms

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.

Related Disorders

There are many types of mouth cancer. All types are relatively rare.

Carcinoma of the floor of the mouth is characterized by a hard growth that can be felt by the tip of the tongue. Pain in the ear, increased salivation, difficulty speaking and later bleeding, are signs of this disorder. This type of cancer may be caused by poor oral hygiene or irritation of the tissues by sharp teeth, ill-fitting dentures, smoking, etc. Frequently, the lymph nodes in the neck are also affected.

Carcinoma of the cheek (mouth, buccal mucosa, carcinoma) is characterized by a malignant lesion in the cheek, pain, difficulty chewing, spasms in the cheek muscles (trismus) and mucosal bleeding. The carcinoma may spread to the lymph glands under the jaw.

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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.

Standard Therapies


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

Email: [emailprotected]

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



Sidransky D. Cancer of the Head and Neck. In: De Vita Jr Vt, Hellman S, Rosenburg SA. eds. Cancer: Principles and Practice on Oncology. 5th ed. J.B. Lippincott Company. Philadelphia, PA; 1997:779-81 (Oral Tongue), :783-86 (Base of Tongue).


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

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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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Who deals with tongue cancer? ›

Who treats oral cavity and oropharyngeal cancer?
  • An otolaryngologist (also known as an ear, nose, and throat, or ENT doctor): a surgeon who treats certain diseases of the head and neck.
  • An oral and maxillofacial surgeon: a dental surgeon who treats diseases of the mouth, teeth, and jaws.

What is the national database of rare diseases? ›

NORD (National Organization for Rare Disorders)

This database from the National Organization for Rare Disorders contains reports on more than 1,200 rare disorders. All reports are freely available. Reports provide brief introductions for patients and caregivers to specific rare diseases.

How rare is tongue cancer? ›

Tongue cancer is relatively rare, representing nearly 1 percent of newly diagnosed cancer cases in the United States, according to the National Cancer Institute (NCI). However, it's one of the more frequently diagnosed forms of head and neck cancers.

What is the survival rate for tongue cancer? ›

For tongue cancers:

almost 80 out of 100 (almost 80%) survive their cancer for a year or more after diagnosis. almost 60 out of 100 (almost 60%) survive their cancer for 5 years or more after diagnosis.

Can tongue cancer be cured completely? ›

If the cancer has not spread beyond the mouth or the part of your throat at the back of your mouth (oropharynx) a complete cure may be possible using surgery alone. If the cancer is large or has spread to your neck, a combination of surgery, radiotherapy and chemotherapy may be needed.

What is the best treatment for tongue cancer? ›

Treatment for tongue cancer typically involves surgery to remove the cancer. Chemotherapy, radiation therapy and targeted drug therapy also may be recommended.

Who runs National Organization for Rare Disorders? ›

Peter Saltonstall

Who can help me with a rare disease? ›

Call the GARD Information Center at 1-888-205-2331 to speak to an information specialist about rare or genetic diseases in English or Spanish.

What is the new rare disease in the US? ›

Bacteria that Causes Rare Disease Melioidosis Discovered in U.S. Environmental Samples. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has identified for the first time in domestic environmental samples the bacteria that causes a rare and serious disease called melioidosis.

Where does tongue cancer spread to first? ›

The most common sites where mouth and oropharyngeal cancer spread to include: the lymph nodes in the neck. the bones. the lungs.

What is the main cause of tongue cancer? ›

Tongue cancer is a type of head and neck cancer. Cancer is when abnormal cells start to divide and grow in an uncontrolled way. Symptoms can include a spot or lump on your tongue that doesn't go away. The main risk factors are smoking, drinking a lot of alcohol and infection with the human papilloma virus (HPV).

How fast can tongue cancer spread? ›

There aren't any hard and fast timelines for whether or when oral cancer will spread. Size is more a determinant. For a moderate-sized oral cancer, there is roughly a 20 to 30 percent chance that it has already spread to the lymph nodes at the time of diagnosis.

How does tongue cancer cause death? ›

Oral cancer is usually regarded as a disease which kills by uncontrollable local tumor, recurrence, or metastatic disease above the clavicles. In this series, however, 61 per cent of those whose deaths were attributable to their first primary malignant lesions died of metastatic disease beyond the neck.

Is tongue cancer a terminal? ›

When identified early, tongue cancer is highly curable, but it can be deadly if it is not promptly diagnosed and treated. Tongue cancer is a serious, life-threatening form of oral cancer. According to the American Cancer Society, oral cancer accounts for 2% to 4% of all cancers diagnosed annually in the United States.

How painful is tongue cancer? ›

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.

How do you slow down tongue cancer? ›

Radiation therapy, including intensity modulated radiation therapy, stops cancer cells from dividing and slows the growth of the tumor. Radiotherapy also destroys cancer cells and can shrink or eliminate tumors.

Does tongue cancer always come back? ›

People with cancer of the oral cavity or oropharynx are at risk of the cancer coming back and are at risk for developing new cancers in the head and neck area, so they must be watched closely after treatment.

How many radiation treatments for tongue cancer? ›

Standard EBRT for oral cavity or oropharyngeal cancers is usually given in daily fractions (doses) 5 days a week for about 7 weeks. But sometimes other schedules might be used: Hyperfractionation radiation is a slightly lower radiation dose given more than once a day (for example, twice a day for 7 weeks).

Which is the best oral cancer hospital in world? ›

Memorial Sloan Kettering is a leading center for the treatment of mouth cancer. U.S. News & World Report consistently ranks MSK among the top hospitals in the nation for head and neck care.

How do you know what stage of tongue cancer you have? ›

Your doctor will assign a stage to your cancer after your physical exam and the initial results from your oral tissue biopsy or imaging tests. The stage may be adjusted if you have additional tests or after surgery.

Is National Organization for Rare Disorders legit? ›

National Organization for Rare Disorders, Inc. has earned a 100% for the Accountability & Finance beacon.

What does the National Organization for Rare Disorders do? ›

NORD is committed to the identification, treatment, and cure of rare diseases through education, advocacy, research, and service programs. NORD administers medication assistance programs for certain rare-disease drugs as well as research grants and fellowships.

Which ministry has approved the National Policy for rare diseases? ›

Ministry of Health and Family Welfare formulated launched NPRD in 2021 for the treatment of rare disease patients.

Is there a support group for rare disorders? ›

Unique provides support, information and networking to families affected by rare chromosome and gene disorders. Our helpline team can help you understand your family member's diagnosis and connect you with others. Why not join us today? Alternatively, have a look around first and contact us when you're ready....

Can I get paid for having a rare disease? ›

Yes, you can get Social Security Disability if you've been diagnosed with a rare disease.

Can you get money for rare disease? ›

PSI Patient Assistance Program (Co-Pay)

(PSI) provides financial support and guidance for qualified patients with specific, rare chronic diseases.

What percent of Americans have rare disease? ›

Rare diseases, when taken together, are not that rare at all. According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), 30 million Americans, or 10 percent of the population, have one of the approximately 7,000 known rare diseases.

How many Americans have a rare disease? ›

There are about 7,000 known rare diseases and collectively, about 1 in 10 people (or 30 million people) in the U.S. have a rare disease.

How many different rare diseases are known to exist today? ›

How many rare diseases are there? There are more than 7,000 rare diseases, according to the National Institutes of Health (NIH). Where can I find out more about rare diseases?

How long can you live with stage 4 tongue cancer? ›

Survival at 5 years

Survival can vary from 95% at five years for stage 1 mouth cancer to 5% at five years for some cancers at stage 4 disease, depending on the location of the lesion.

What does Stage 1 tongue cancer look like? ›

The most common early symptom of tongue cancer is a sore on your tongue that doesn't heal and that bleeds easily. You might also notice mouth or tongue pain. Other symptoms of tongue cancer include: a red or white patch on your tongue that persists.

Does tongue cancer spread to brain? ›

In late stages, patients with oral cancer for example, may succumb to a cancer in the lungs or the brain, which was not the location of the original, primary tumor.

How long is chemo for tongue cancer? ›

Adjuvant or neoadjuvant chemo is often given for a total of 3 to 6 months, depending on the drugs used. The length of treatment depends on how well it is working and what side effects you might have.

Which cancer has highest recurrence rate? ›

Which cancer has the highest recurrence rate? Cancers with the highest recurrence rates include: Glioblastoma, the most common type of brain cancer, has a near 100 percent recurrence rate, according to a study published in the Journal of Neuro-Oncology.

What happens if you leave tongue cancer untreated? ›

Left untreated, oral cancer can spread throughout your mouth and throat to other areas of your head and neck.

Is death by oral cancer painful? ›

Oral cancer is unique in that it causes intense pain at the primary site and significantly impairs speech, swallowing, and masticatory functions.

Can chemotherapy cure tongue cancer? ›

Chemotherapy uses drugs to kill cancer cells. Chemotherapy may be used along with radiation therapy to treat locally advanced tongue cancer. For tongue cancer that has recurred or has spread to other areas of the body, chemotherapy may be recommended to slow the growth of the cancer.

Does tongue grow back after cancer surgery? ›

Surgical resections alone create volumetric muscle loss whereby muscle tissue cannot self-regenerate within the tongue. In these cases, the tongue is reconstructed typically in the form of autologous skin flaps.

Does tongue cancer make you feel sick? ›

Mouth cancer tends not to cause any noticeable symptoms during the initial stages of the disease. This is why it's important to have regular dental check-ups, particularly if you are a smoker, a heavy drinker or a betel chewer, because a dentist may often be able to detect the condition during an examination.

What are the symptoms of last stage of mouth cancer? ›

Symptoms of Advanced Cancer of the Oral Cavity

A lump on your lips, neck, or in your mouth that doesn't go away. A white or red patch on your gums, tongue, or cheeks. Bleeding, pain, or numbness in your mouth that doesn't go away. A sore throat that doesn't heal.

What age do people get tongue cancer? ›

What is the average age of people who get oral cavity or oropharyngeal cancer? The average age of people diagnosed with these cancers is 64, but they can occur in young people. Just over 20% (1 in 5) of cases occur in people younger than 55.

Does ENT treat tongue cancer? ›

Early diagnosis of oral cancer leads to early treatment

An ear, nose, throat (ENT) specialist, also known as an otolaryngologist can treat the cancer. He or she will refer you to other specialists should you need surgery. Oral and maxillofacial surgeons specialize in surgery of the face, mouth, and jaw.

Can an ENT diagnose tongue cancer? ›

ENT specialists or dentists use oral cancer screenings to check the cheek lining, floor, and roof of the mouth, gums, lips, tongue, and tonsils for abnormalities. This exam aims to detect cancer before more signs and symptoms develop. Usually, your provider examines your mouth during a routine check-up for oral cancer.

Can a dermatologist diagnose tongue cancer? ›

Dermatologists are the ideal medical specialty, along with dental specialists, to detect the beginnings of this cancer, Dr. Jordan says. “They're just looking for abnormalities.

What is the success rate of radiation therapy for tongue cancer? ›

Oral cancer is very common in India. The reported 5-year survival of such patients is around 50% after treatment with surgery and radiotherapy, much lower than most of the developed countries.

How serious is a tongue biopsy? ›

A tongue biopsy is a minor surgery that is done to remove a small piece of the tongue. The tissue is then examined under a microscope. Structures of the throat include the esophagus, trachea, epiglottis and tonsils. A surgeon will remove a section of the unusual area of skin on the tongue to analyze.

How long is recovery time for tongue surgery? ›

Pain will be present for at least 7-14 days following surgery, but it should improve around two weeks following surgery. If you are running out of medication, and you still have significant pain, please contact us before it finishes.

Is tongue cancer considered head and neck cancer? ›

Cancer that develops in the base of the tongue is a type of head and neck cancer. Almost all cancers in the base of the tongue are squamous cell carcinomas, which form in the thin, flat cells that line the larynx. Squamous cells also make up the top layer of skin and other body parts such as the lungs and esophagus.

Do you need chemo for tongue cancer? ›

Chemotherapy may be used along with radiation therapy to treat locally advanced tongue cancer. For tongue cancer that has recurred or has spread to other areas of the body, chemotherapy may be recommended to slow the growth of the cancer.


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