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Signs and Symptoms of Tongue Cancer

written by: Kimberly Sharpe • edited by: Diana Cooper • updated: 3/16/2011

Tobacco users and alcohol drinkers should always be on the lookout for possible signs and symptoms of tongue cancer. An abnormal oral lesion is often detected during a routine dental exam. Further testing can help determine if the suspicious areas is malignant.

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    Signs and Symptoms of Tongue Cancer

    Tongue cancer usually arises in the surface cells of the organ. Known as squamous cell carcinomas, it has the ability to metastasize to other areas of the body through the lymph node system. Symptoms of tongue cancer may initially be overlooked by the sufferer. A dentist may notice abnormal spots on the tongue's surface during a routine oral exam. A small pink, red or white patch usually appears on the tongue's surface. The sufferer may have bleeding on the tongue's surface, a lump in the neck, pain when swallowing or suffer an ongoing earache. Other symptoms may occur if the cancer has metastasized to the head, neck, lungs or other areas of the body.

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    Risk Factors

    Tobacco users face an increased risk for oral cancers, such as those of the tongue. Alcohol drinkers also face an increased risk. A combination of the two behaviors will elevate the risk even higher. Sufferers of other oral cancers, such as the lips, checks, gums, neck or throat should remain vigilant for possible spread to the tongue.

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    Diagnosis

    Any area on the tongue of concern will require a biopsy. The physician will remove a small cell sample to examine. The biopsy is usually obtained using a local anesthesia but a general may also be used. The test results will let the physician know beyond a shadow of a doubt if the area is malignant. If a diagnosis of cancer is made the physician will order further tests to determine the stage of the cancer. He will evaluate the size of the lesion, look for localized spread and examine the lymph nodes. An endoscope will help the physician look at the throat, esophagus and into the lungs for areas of possible spread.

    X-rays, magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and computerized axial tomography (CT scan) will also help the physician determine if the cancer has spread to other regions of the body. The physician will usually refer the patient to a specialist to determine the best course of treatment.

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    Treatment

    Treatment will usually involve surgery, radiation therapy or chemotherapy. Surgery often involves removal of the infected lesion and the lymph nodes in the neck. A small lesion removal will rarely effect the patient but a large tumor may require removal of a portion of the tongue. This can make chewing, swallowing or communication difficult. The patient may face further reconstructive surgery after the removal of the cancerous lesions.

    Radiation therapy is often used in conjunction with surgery or it may also be used solely if the tumor is too large or widespread to remove surgically. Chemotherapy can also be used in combination with surgery and radiation therapy.

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    Rehabilitation

    Following treatment a sufferer may require rehabilitation therapy. A speech therapist and a dietitian can help the sufferer learn coping strategies after the ordeal.

    Ongoing monitoring will be required to catch the cancer if it should return. People at high risk for oral cancer should always monitor their tongue and oral health. Ask the dentist to evaluate the tongue and oral cavity during routine teeth cleaning. Early detection remains the best means of dealing with tongue cancer. Be diligent for symptoms of tongue cancer. If a suspicious spot should arise on the tongue's surface seek medical advice.