Tongue cancer is a type of oral cancer that forms in the front two-thirds of the tongue. Cancer that forms in the back one third of the tongue is considered a type of head and neck cancer.

Tongue cancer usually develops in the squamous cells, the thin, flat cells that cover the surface of the tongue.


Symptoms of tongue cancer are very similar to symptoms of other types of oral cancer. It can often be mistaken for a cold that won’t go away, or a persistent sore in the mouth. Other tongue cancer symptoms and signs may include:

  • Persistent tongue and/or jaw pain
  • A lump or thickening in the inside of the mouth
  • A white or red patch on the gums, tongue, tonsil, or lining of the mouth
  • A sore throat or feeling that something is caught in the throat that does not go away
  • Difficulty swallowing or chewing
  • Difficulty moving the jaw or tongue


Mouth cancer occurs when cells on the lips or in the mouth develop changes (mutations) in their DNA. These mutations allow cancer cells to grow and divide when healthy cells would die. The accumulating mouth cancer cells can form a tumor. With time they may spread to other areas of the mouth and on to other areas of the head and neck or other parts of the body.

It is not clear what causes the mutations in squamous cells that lead to mouth cancer. But doctors have identified factors that may increase the risk of mouth cancer.

The following are the types of mouth cancer, a general term that applies to cancers that occur on the lips and throughout the mouth. More-specific terms for these types of cancer include:

  • Cancer that affects in the inside portion of the cheeks (buccal mucosa cancer)
  • Floor of mouth cancer
  • Gum cancer
  • Lip cancer
  • Roof of mouth (hard palate) cancer
  • Salivary gland cancer
  • Tongue cancer

Risk Factors

Factors that can increase the risk of mouth cancer include:

  • Heavy alcohol use
  • Tobacco use of any kind, including cigarettes, cigars, pipes, chewing tobacco and snuff, among others
  • Excessive sun exposure to the lips
  • A sexually transmitted virus called human papillomavirus (HPV)


Oral complications of cancer treatment arise in various forms and degrees of severity, depending on the individual and the cancer treatment. Oral complications common to both chemotherapy and radiation include oral mucositis, infection, Xerostomia/ salivary gland dysfunction, functional disabilities, taste alterations, nutritional compromise, abnormal dental development.


You can take an active role in preventing oral cancer or detecting it in its early stages with these actions:

  • Always brush and floss the teeth regularly.
  • Do not smoke (or chew) any type of tobacco product.
  • Drink alcohol in moderation.
  • Limit the exposure to the sun.
  • Exercise regularly.
  • Choose cancer-fighting foods in the diet.
  • How you prepare those foods is also important in the prevention of cancer.
  • See the dentist or dental hygienist regularly.
  • Conduct a self exam at least once a month.