Tongue cancer occurs when cells on the tongue grow uncontrollably and form a tumor, similar to other malignancies. Squamous cells, the thin, flat cells that line the surface of the tongue, are where tongue cancer most frequently develops. Older adults are more susceptible to this condition than children.
The tongue extends from the throat into the mouth and is composed of nerves and muscles that support movement and various functions, including taste, speaking, eating, and swallowing. Many types of cancer can affect the tongue, although tongue cancer is less common compared to many other forms of mouth cancers.
Tongue cancer has two types: one that affects the visible protruding part of the tongue and another that occurs where the tongue joins the neck, at the base.
The standard treatment approach for tongue cancer typically includes a combination of surgery and radiation therapy, with potential alternatives such as chemotherapy and targeted therapy. The choice of treatment depends on the type of cancer cells present, as well as the size and location of the cancer.
Tongue cancer typically presents different signs depending on its type or location. Oral tongue cancer frequently starts with a persistent sore on the tongue that doesn’t heal, along with potential discomfort, bleeding, or a lump on the tongue. The sore may appear pinkish-red and may bleed when bitten or touched.
With oropharyngeal tongue cancer, swollen lymph nodes in the neck may be the initial symptom. The presence of a lump in the mouth, throat, or neck, coughing up blood, unexplained weight loss, and ear pain are some of the accompanying symptoms.
Other symptoms may include:
People who experience persistent sore on their tongue or in their mouth that doesn’t improve within a few weeks should see their healthcare provider for proper diagnosis and treatment.
It is generally recommended to do a routine dental checkup or a regular medical examination since potential signs of tongue cancer are usually detected during these exams.
Tongue cancer begins when normal tongue cells undergo DNA changes, prompting them to grow uncontrollably and evade natural cell death. This excessive cell growth can result in the formation of a tumor, which may eventually break away and spread to other parts of the body.
The exact causes of these DNA changes leading to tongue cancer are often unclear. In some cases of throat-related tongue cancer, human papillomavirus (HPV), a common sexually transmitted virus, may play a role. It’s worth noting that HPV-related throat tongue cancer generally responds better to treatment compared to cases not linked to HPV.
It is believed that genes may influence one’s risk of developing tongue cancer. Other common risk factors include:
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