Learning About Tongue Cancer
- Mari Henderson is a 35-year-old tongue cancer survivor. And her cancer journey began when she started trying to figure out the cause behind her persistent “canker sore.”
- A mouth sore may be painful and inflamed from the start but heal within two or three weeks. On the other hand, a cancerous lump may not be painful in the early stages and it won’t get better over time.
- Tongue cancer doesn’t always show signs, but symptoms can include: a lump on the side of the tongue that touches the teeth, pain, a sense of fullness in the throat, difficulty swallowing, the feeling of a lump in the neck or throat, voice changes and ear pain.
- Tongue cancer is more commonly found in people older than 40. In addition, tongue cancer is twice as common in men, and smokers are five times more likely to develop tongue cancer than nonsmokers.
Henderson, 35, was home on maternity leave with her first child when she found the tender spot on her tongue.Read More
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Henderson’s confusion between a canker sore and a cancerous lump is understandable. Both can appear like an ulcer in the mouth – on the cheeks, lips or on or under the tongue. But there are a few key differences that can help people distinguish between a benign (noncancerous) sore and something more serious, according to MD Anderson Cancer Center.
A canker sore may:
- Be red and inflamed around the edges
- Be flat
- Be painful in the beginning and less painful as they heal
- Get better within two or three weeks
In contrast, oral cancer may:
- Not typically be painful or inflamed int he early stages
- Appear as a tiny lump or bump under the lesion
- Start as a small spot that grows larger
- Start as a white spot that turns red
- Be a lesion that bleeded when it didn’t before
- Doesn’t heal or get better over time
If your notice a spot in your mouth and are concerned at all about your symptoms, especially if it does not heal or get better over time, you should talk to you doctor or dentist about it.
Even still, Henderson’s doctor was not overly concerned. But things “started to click” when she thought of her older brother – a fellow tongue cancer survivor.
“That was a really rare, crazy thing that happened to my brother who’s 10 years older than me,” she said. “When the dentist said it’s not a canker sore that’s when I was l like, ‘OK (I should see a doctor).’”
After seeing an ear, nose and throat doctor, she was given liquid steroids to treat her tongue. But the spot still didn’t shrink.
“I called my brother, and he was like, ‘I did the exact same thing for nine months,’” she said, adding that he pushed her to get a biopsy.
After an intense excisional biopsy that required the removal of a swath of her tongue, Henderson was, in fact, diagnosed with tongue cancer. For treatment, she underwent more surgery.
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Now on the other side of her cancer journey, Henderson wants to spare others of the prolonged experience she had.
“I’m out here able to talk to you today normally because I didn’t wait on it even longer. So, I’m very lucky,” Henderson said. “Prioritize your health and do not put it on the back burner and ignore things.
“The number one thing that I want people to know is from what my dentist said — a canker sore goes away in three weeks… If there’s something that doesn’t go away, get it checked out and be persistent.”
Understanding Tongue Cancer
Tongue cancer, in general, is a form of cancer that begins in the cells of the tongue, but several different types of cancer can affect the tongue. Most often, tongue cancer begins in the thin, flat squamous cells that line the surface of the tongue, according to the Mayo Clinic.
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Treatment for the disease depends upon what type of cells are involved with each case of tongue cancer as well as where the cancer actually occurs on the tongue. Tongue cancer can occur:
- In the mouth: here, it tends to be diagnosed when the cancer is small and more easily removed through surgery and it may be more easily seen and felt (oral tongue cancer).
- In the throat, at the base of the tongue: here, it may develop with few signs and symptoms (hypopharyngeal tongue cancer) and it is usually diagnosed at an advanced stage when the tumor is larger and the cancer has spread into the lymph nodes in the neck.
Symptoms of this disease can vary depending on the type of tongue cancer, according to Cedars-Sinai.
Signs of oral tongue cancer can include:
- A lump on the side of the tongue that touches the teeth.
- The lump often looks like an ulcer and is grayish-pink to red.
- The lump bleeds easily if bitten or touched.
Base of tongue cancer is often difficult to see in the early stages with few symptoms. But later-stage symptoms can include:
- A sense of fullness in the throat
- Difficulty swallowing
- The feeling of a lump in the neck or throat
- Voice changes
- Ear pain
People develop tongue cancer without having any risk factors at all, but it should be noted that this cancer is more commonly found in people older than 40 and it is twice as common in men. Other risk factors include:
- Smoking: Smokers are five times more likely to develop tongue cancer than nonsmokers.
- Drinking alcohol
- Human papillomavirus (HPV), a sexually transmitted disease: HPV 16 and HPV 18 increase the risk of tongue cancer
- Race: African-American men are at greater risk than Caucasians
Advocating for Your Health
Whether you are currently battling cancer or worried you might have it, it’s always important to advocate for your health. Cancer is an incredibly serious disease, and you have every right to insist that your doctors investigate any possible signs of cancer.
And, as we saw in the case above, it’s always crucial to speak up about any changes to your health – regardless of whether you suspect there’s anything sinister behind them.
Be Pushy, Be Your Own Advocate… Don’t Settle
“Every appointment you leave as a patient, there should be a plan for what the doc is going to do for you, and if that doesn’t work, what the next plan is,” Dr. Zuri Murrell, director of the Cedars-Sinai Colorectal Cancer Center, told SurvivorNet in a previous interview. “And I think that that’s totally fair. And me as a health professional – that’s what I do for all of my patients.”
In a previous interview with SurvivorNet, April Knowles explained how she became a breast cancer advocate after her doctor dismissed the lump in her breast as a side effect of her menstrual period. Unfortunately, that dismissal was a mistake. Knowles was diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer at age 39. She said the experience taught her the importance of listening to her body and speaking up when something doesn’t feel right.
I Wanted My Doctor To Like Me, Then He Missed My Breast Cancer
“I wanted my doctor to like me,” she said. “I think women, especially young women, are really used to being dismissed by their doctors.”
Figuring out whether or not you actually have cancer based on possible symptoms is critical because early detection may help with treatment and outcomes. Seeking multiple opinions is one way to ensure you’re getting the care and attention you need.
Another thing to remember is that not all doctors are in agreement. Recommendations for further testing or treatment options can vary, and sometimes it’s essential to talk with multiple medical professionals.
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