Tongue cancer is a rare type of head and neck cancer.
The tongue has two parts, and cancer can develop in either of them:
Doctors do not know the exact causes of tongue cancer. But there are risk factors that can increase your chance of developing it.
The main risk factors for head and neck cancer are:
- smoking or chewing tobacco
- drinking large amounts of alcohol.
Your risk of developing tongue cancer is higher if you do both.
Having one or more risk factors does not mean you will get tongue cancer. Also, having no risk factors does not mean you will not develop tongue cancer.
We have more information about the causes and risk factors of head and neck cancers.
You usually start by seeing your GP or your dentist. They will examine your tongue and mouth closely. They will refer you to a specialist doctor if:
- they think that your symptoms could be caused by cancer
- they are not sure what the problem is.
The specialist doctor will ask about your symptoms and general health. They will examine your tongue and feel for any lumps in your neck. These may be caused by swollen lymph nodes, but can be caused by other medical conditions.
You may have some of the following tests:
The doctor collects samples (biopsies) of cells or tissue from the area that looks abnormal. A doctor who specialises in analysing cells (called a pathologist) looks at the sample under a microscope for cancer cells.
Waiting for test results can be a difficult time, we have more information that can help.
Further tests for tongue cancer
If tongue cancer is diagnosed, your doctor may want to do some further tests to find out more about the cancer. These tests may include:
Ultrasound scan of the neck
The results of your tests helps your doctors find out more about the size and position of the cancer and whether it has spread. This is called staging.
A doctor decides the grade of the cancer by how the cancer cells look under the microscope. This gives an idea of how quickly the cancer might grow or spread.
Knowing the stage and grade helps your doctors plan the best treatment for you.
A team of specialists will meet to discuss the best possible treatment for you. This is called a multidisciplinary team (MDT).
Your cancer doctor or specialist nurse will explain the different treatments and their side effects. They will also talk to you about the things you should consider when making treatment decisions.
Treatment for tongue cancer may include:
Chemoradiation is when you have chemotherapy and radiotherapy together. Chemotherapy can make the cancer cells more sensitive to radiotherapy treatment.
We have more information about:
- how different treatments are used to treat tongue cancer
- what will happen before your treatment and how to prepare.
You may have some treatments as part of a clinical trial.
You have regular follow-up appointments after treatment. These may continue for several years. You may also have regular follow-up appointments with a speech and language therapist (SLT), dietitian, restorative dentist and dental hygienist.
If you have any problems or notice new symptoms between appointments, let your doctor know as soon as possible.
Sex life and fertility
Some side effects that develop during treatment can take months to
improve or may become permanent. Other side effects can develop years after treatment has finished.
These side effects are known as long term or late effects. We have more information about long-term and late effects of head and neck cancer treatment.
Well-being and recovery
Even if you already have a healthy lifestyle, you may choose to make some positive lifestyle changes after treatment.
Making small changes to the way you live such as eating well and keeping active can improve your health and well-being and help your body recover.
It can be difficult to eat well after treatment for head and neck cancer, but your dietitian can help you.
For some people, it takes several months to recover from treatment. It can be hard to cope if treatment has changed your appearance, voice or how you eat and drink. It is common to feel overwhelmed by different feelings.
There are national support groups that you may find helpful:
Macmillan is also here to support you. If you would like to talk, you can:
Below is a sample of the sources used in our tongue cancer information. If you would like more information about the sources we use, please contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org
British Association of Head and Neck Oncologists. Head and Neck Cancer: United Kingdom National Multidisciplinary Guidelines. 2016. Available from: https://www.bahno.org.uk/_userfiles/pages/files/ukheadandcancerguidelines2016.pdf (accessed September 2018).
This information has been written, revised and edited by Macmillan Cancer Support’s Cancer Information Development team. It has been reviewed by expert medical and health professionals and people living with cancer. It has been approved by Senior Medical Editor, Dr Chris Alcock, Consultant Clinical Oncologist.
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