Call Today:(800) 263-9547 Make An Appointment

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 2/3 rds of the oral tongue, the part of the tongue that you can stick out of your mouth, it is considered oral cancer. Cancer can also occur at the base of the tongue, the back 1/3 rd of the tongue that extends down into the throat, in which case it is considered to be oropharyngeal cancer.

Symptoms of Tongue 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 latter 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 of the Base of the Tongue rarely has symptoms until the later stages in which patients often  complain of symptoms such as:

  • Pain in the throat
  • Difficulty swallowing
  • Feeling like you have a lump in the throat
  • Voice changes
  • Referred 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 of the utmost importance to your long term prognosis. The highly  experienced, Board Certified Head and Neck specialists at UC-Irvine have developed a unique screening  technique for patients presenting with signs and symptoms of tongue cancer. 

Risk Factors for Tongue Cancer:

Oral cancers account for approximately 2-4% of all cancers in the United States. The two most important risk factors for the development of tongue cancer is tobacco use and alcohol consumption. Although it is possible to develop cancer of the tongue without having any risk factors, it is much less common. Males are twice more likely to develop tongue cancer than females are. Tongue cancer is more likely to occur in people 40 or older, although it has rarely been found in younger people as well.

Tongue Cancer Risk Factors

  • Smoking cigarettes or using other forms of tobacco (chewing, etc…)
  • Alcohol Consumption
  • HPV-16 and 18: Human Papillomavirus
  • African Americans are at higher risk than Caucasians

Dr. William Armstrong, Chairman of UC-Irvine’s Department of Otolaryngology, is actively involved with  the National Cancer Institute’s clinical trials for oral cancer prevention. His primary research interest is in  early detection and chemoprevention of head and neck cancer. 

Diagnosis of Tongue Cancer:

Here at UC-Irvine’s Head and Neck Center, we firmly believe that 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 patient history is taken. This will be followed by a targeted  physical examination of the entire oral cavity down into the throat. Diagnostic tests may be ordered  including:

  • X-Rays of the mouth and throat
  • CT (computed tomography) scans
  • PET (position emission tomography) 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.

Treatment of Tongue Cancer:

At UC-Irvine we are proud to offer the latest minimally invasive and most effective treatment options for various forms of oral cancer. Treatment options for tongue cancer vary depending on the type and progression of your specific tumor. Early detection offers the best prognosis for tongue cancers.


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 in conjunction 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). IMRT is able to calculate the accurate dose of radiated needed to treat your specific tumor through an advanced computer system. This allows us to administer the most effective radiation treatment, while minimizing excess exposure of radiation to the normal tissue surrounding the tumor and limiting the amount and severity of side effects.


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 it is 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 administed after surgery to decrease the risk of recurrence of the cancer.

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.

To schedule a consultation with one of our board certified head and neck surgeons, contact UC-Irvine’s Department of Head and Neck Surgery today.