Symptoms of Early Tongue Cancer

Tongue cancer can grow on the main portion of the tongue or at its base. Early signs of cancer on the base of the tongue can be difficult to see. The most common form of tongue cancer is squamous cell carcinoma. 

Below, we look at some of the symptoms of tongue cancer and go over when it’s time to see a healthcare provider. 

Doctor examining a patient in her office

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Early Symptoms

Cancer of the tongue can happen on the part of the tongue called the oral tongue, which is the front two-thirds, or on the back one-third of the tongue, also known as the base of the tongue. The oral tongue is the part of the tongue that sits in the mouth and that you can stick out. The base of the tongue is the portion of the tongue that extends down the throat. 

With oral tongue cancer, early symptoms are usually easy to spot. People may feel a lump or notice an ulcer or discoloration on the surface of the tongue. Ulcers or lumps may bleed.

The discoloration is usually pink in color but can also be white or yellow and doesn’t heal. Generalized mouth pain that doesn’t go away is another common symptom of tongue cancer.

Cancers at the back or base of the tongue are rarely accompanied by any symptoms until later stages. If there is a lump or tumor, it’s not usually noticeable until it grows big enough to cause problems or symptoms.

Ear pain is one symptom of cancer at the base of the tongue that may occur early on. If your ear hurts and there’s no other apparent cause, talk to your healthcare provider.

Late-Stage Symptoms 

Base of the tongue cancer usually causes symptoms only in later stages when the cancer grows larger. Some later-stage symptoms of this type of cancer include:

  • Throat pain
  • Neck mass or lump in neck
  • Problem swallowing
  • A feeling that there’s something in the throat
  • Voice changes
  • Jaw pain
  • Problems speaking or chewing 
  • Lesions elsewhere in the mouth
  • Trouble moving the tongue
  • Numbness of the tongue
  • Jaw swelling 
  • Weight loss
  • Foul breath

According to the American Cancer Society, the five-year survival rate for tongue cancer averages about 67%. When tongue cancer is still localized, the five-year survival rate is about 82%.

Risk Factors

If you are at higher risk for tongue cancer, you may want to be sure to get regular dental examinations and health checkups so a healthcare professional can check you for signs and symptoms. Here are a few risk factors for tongue cancer:

  • Smoking and drinking alcohol: People who smoke or drink are more likely than others to develop tongue cancer. Chewing tobacco can also increase a person’s risk of getting tongue cancer. 
  • Getting a human papillomavirus (HPV) infection: Certain strains of HPV can increase a person’s risk of tongue cancer and other oropharyngeal cancers.
  • Older age: People, particularly men, are more likely to develop tongue cancer if they are over 60 years of age. Women under 40 are the least likely to develop tongue cancer.

When To See a Healthcare Provider

If you notice something on your tongue isn't going away, such as discoloration or a bleeding ulcer, you should see a healthcare provider. Trouble swallowing, changes in voice, and pain in the throat or tongue are also reasons to see a healthcare provider.

Many symptoms listed above can be caused by other conditions. If your symptoms aren’t going away, though, it’s best to see a dentist or healthcare provider for a diagnosis.  Generally, if a symptom doesn't go away within two weeks, you should make an appointment to see a healthcare provider.

The following tests will help a healthcare provider diagnose tongue cancer:

  • X-rays
  • Computed tomography (CT) scans
  • Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI)
  • Positron emission tomography (PET) scans 
  • Biopsy 

A Word From Verywell

Catching cancer early means that there's a higher chance treatment will be successful. Unfortunately, some types of tongue cancer are hard to spot.

If cancer is growing at the base of the tongue, you might not have any symptoms at first. Whenever you notice abnormal growth on any part of your body, including the tongue, it’s essential to see a healthcare provider to check for malignancy. 

If you experience any weird symptoms like difficulty swallowing, discomfort in your throat, or a lump in your neck, make an appointment with your healthcare provider. It’s always better to be on the safe side.

That said, just because you notice a lesion or spot on your tongue doesn’t mean you have cancer. Tongue cancer is relatively rare. Please don’t ignore it, though. Go to a healthcare provider for a diagnosis and peace of mind. 

6 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Cedars Sinai. Tongue cancer

  2. American Cancer Society. Signs and symptoms of oral cavity and oropharyngeal cancer.

  3. National Organization for Rare Disorders. Tongue cancer

  4. Moffitt Cancer Center. What are the first signs of tongue cancer? 

  5. American Cancer Society. Survival rates for oral cavity and oropharyngeal cancer.

  6. American Cancer Society. Can oral cavity and oropharyngeal cancers be found early?

By Steph Coelho
Steph Coelho is a freelance health writer, web producer, and editor based in Montreal. She specializes in covering general wellness and chronic illness.