Say the word "cancer" and most people think of the most well-known conditions: lung, colon, skin and the like. Although oral cancer – specifically that of the tongue – tends to be an afterthought, the tongue plays a crucial role to eating and speaking. It's therefore just as important to know what to look for in tongue cancer symptoms so your oral health doesn't threaten these basic functions.
What is tongue cancer?
The tongue is divided into two parts. The front two thirds is the oral tongue, whereas the back third is the tongue base. Tongue cancer is a kind of cancer that begins inside the cells of the tongue. This could result in lesions or tumors on the tongue. This type of cancer can occur on the front part of your tongue and is known as oral tongue cancer.
In addition, it may develop at the bottom of your tongue, adjacent to where it holds on underneath your mouth. The cancer could involve the soft palate, side and back walls of the throat as well as the back one third of the tongue. This is referred to as oropharyngeal cancer.
The most known kind of tongue cancer is squamous cell carcinoma. This cancer manifests itself:
- inside the lining of the digestive and respiratory tracts
- inside the lining of the throat, thyroid, larynx, nose and mouth
- on the skin surface
This cancer usually originates in thin, flat cells known as squamous cells, which fully cover the tongue's surface. Any cancer that develops on the tongue base is known as an oropharyngeal cancer.
Tongue cancer symptoms
It is common for people to mistake oral cancer with less severe conditions such as mouth sore or a toothache. You should see a doctor if symptoms continue. The doctor may recommend doing tests to see if you have tongue cancer. Symptoms include:
- change in voice
- difficulty chewing or swallowing
- a red or white patch on the tonsil, tongue, gums or mouth lining
- a thickening or lump in the cheek
- pain in the mouth that doesn't go away
- pain in the jaw or teeth
Detecting tongue cancer
It is very important to have 6 monthly check ups with your dentist as one of the things he/she will be checking for is early signs of oral cancer. However, if you notice one or more symptoms indicating tongue cancer, please contact your dentist immediately. The first step your dentist will take is to perform a basic oral examination. Numerous areas are involved in a proper diagnosis, but the tongue, throat, cheeks, roof and floor of the mouth and neck lymph nodes should all receive a thorough examination. If the doctor does discover an unexplained growth in the oral cavity, he/she will ultimately provide a brush or tissue biopsy.
Other detection methods should be performed by a doctor as necessary. An endoscopy, for example, can be used to get a closer look down your throat and into your lungs. X-rays of the jaws, chest and lungs will show if the cancer has spread from the tongue, whereas a CT scan will reveal any potentially malignant tumors. Like an X-ray, an MRI is helpful in determining if the cancer has indeed undergone metastasis, infecting another part of the body. If your doctor can't determine the cause of your symptoms, he may refer you to an ear, nose and throat specialist.
The key to treating any form of cancer is finding it early, before it spreads. Tongue cancer, in particular, has several treatment approaches depending on the infection's size and whether or not it has traveled to the neck's lymph nodes. Small, isolated tumors are removed surgically. Cancer that has spread to these lymph nodes should receive the same treatment, so long as it is followed by radiation therapy sessions to destroy any remaining cells. Of course, chemotherapy is another treatment option you may choose to explore with your primary doctor.
Any form of cancer should be considered a life-threatening condition, and therefore deserves the best medical attention to ensure your course of treatment is ideal for you. Nevertheless, the best way to avoid these tongue cancer symptoms is to live the healthiest life possible. For tongue cancer, this includes maintaining an oral health routine that doesn't just avoid tobacco products, but keeps your teeth and tongue healthy by practicing good oral health care.