Signs & Symptoms

Unlike other cancers of the head and neck, tongue cancers can typically be seen or felt as an abnormality by a patient, dentist, or doctor. Symptoms to watch for include:

  • Painful sores in the mouth: Most commonly, tongue cancer starts as a painful sore in the mouth that doesn’t heal after a few weeks.
  • A patch on the tongue: Patches on the tongue are most commonly either red (erythroplakia) or white (leukoplakia). Red patches are more likely to be cancer than white patches; however, any patch in the mouth that is persistent for several weeks should be biopsied by a specialist.
  • Difficulty speaking (dysarthria):This can occur when a tumour changes the way the tongue moves.
  • Recurrent bleeding from the mouth: Growths in the mouth that are cancer tend to bleed easily when accidentally scraped while brushing teeth or eating certain foods.
  • Bad breath: As cancers grow larger, dead cells within the tumour (necrotic cancer) lead to a bad smell from the mouth (halitosis).

In some cases, the first sign of tongue cancer could be a lump in the neck. This means that the tumour has spread to lymph nodes in the neck. However, in tongue cancers, the primary cancer in the mouth is usually noticed before it reaches these lymph nodes.

Additional Symptoms

If tongue cancer grows to involve other parts of the oral cavity (such as the floor of mouth, alveolus, gums, jawbone and/or deeper muscles), the following symptoms might result:

  • Loose teeth or dentures that don’t fit correctly: This occurs if the tumour invades the tooth sockets or the bones in which the teeth are rooted.
  • Difficulty opening the mouth (trismus): This can happen if the cancer gets into any of the muscles that help to open and close the mouth.
  • Numbness (i.e. in the lower teeth or lower lip/chin area): This means that the cancer cells have invaded the nerves that control the ability to feel.
  • Pain or difficulty with swallowing: This can happen when tumours become large and get in the way of eating or involve the muscles and nerves of swallowing.

It is important to note that a patient could have one or more of these symptoms and not have tongue cancer. There are several non-cancerous causes of the same symptoms. That’s why it’s especially important to seek medical advice from a specialist.