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Patient explaining her tongue cancer symptoms with doctor

Cancer sometimes develops in the tongue, a long, flat, muscular organ in the mouth that aids in tasting, chewing, swallowing, breathing and speaking. The most common type of tongue cancer is squamous cell carcinoma, which originates in the flat squamous cells that line the tongue’s surface.

Tongue cancer accounts for approximately 1% of newly diagnosed cancer cases in the United States. There are two main types oral cavity cancer, which develops in the front two-thirds of the tongue, and oropharyngeal cancer, which develops at the base of the tongue.

What does tongue cancer look like?

Early warning signs of tongue cancer can be difficult to spot, especially if the tumor forms at the base of the tongue behind the oral cavity. In many cases, the first noticeable symptom is a painful lump or sore on the side of the tongue that touches the teeth, bleeds easily and resists healing. Usually, the lump is grayish-pink and resembles an ulcer.

When performing a routine oral examination, a dentist may notice possible signs of early-stage tongue cancer. Although a dentist cannot confirm a cancer diagnosis, they can advise the patient to seek follow-up care if appropriate. For this reason, the nonprofit Oral Cancer Foundation recommends that adults 18 and older receive an oral cancer screening as part of each regular dental checkup.

Other visible warning signs of tongue cancer can include:

  • A red or white patch on the tongue
  • A thickened area of the tongue
  • Swelling in the tongue

What does tongue cancer feel like?

Tongue cancer symptoms that can be felt include:

  • Persistent tongue, mouth or jaw pain
  • Numbness or burning sensations in the tongue
  • An irritated or sore throat that does not go away within a few days

Advanced signs and symptoms of tongue cancer

As tongue cancer progresses, additional symptoms may develop, such as:

  • Difficulty speaking, chewing, swallowing or moving the jaw
  • A sensation that something is caught in the throat
  • Vocal changes or hoarseness
  • A lump in the neck
  • Neck or ear pain
  • Unexplained fatigue

Benefit from world-class care at Moffitt Cancer Center

The specialists in Moffitt’s highly regarded Head and Neck Cancer Program offer screening, diagnostic and treatment services for many types of oral cavity and oropharyngeal cancers, including tongue cancer. Whether you are interested in oral cancer screening or you have already been diagnosed with tongue cancer and would like to explore your treatment options, you will receive prompt and individualized care from our skilled team.

As Florida’s top cancer hospital, Moffitt is changing the model. When you reach out to us, we will connect with a cancer expert as soon as possible. Request an appointment by calling 1-888-663-3488 or submitting a new patient registration form online. No referral is required.


American Cancer Society: Signs and Symptoms of Oral Cavity and Oropharyngeal Cancer
American Cancer Society: Risk Factors for Oral Cavity and Oropharyngeal Cancers
Dental Journal: Early detection and treatment of Speckled leukoplakia
Oral Cancer Foundation: Screening