Tongue cancer - symptoms, causes and treatment

Tongue cancer - symptoms, causes and treatment

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Tongue cancer, also called tongue cancer in medical terminology, is a malignant disease. The head and neck tumor is rare and has a good chance of healing, especially in the early stages of the disease. Mostly people between the ages of 50 and 70 are affected.

Tongue cancer - the local symptoms

Especially in the beginning, tongue cancer hardly causes any symptoms. Only when the disease progresses do those affected notice changes. Patients often describe that they experience a foreign body sensation in the mouth or throat. Burning tongues or burning mouth can also indicate a tongue tumor.

A sore throat that radiates into the ears is also characteristic of the malignant tumor. Of course, these can also occur as part of a cold. However, a sore throat is suspect, which persists for more than three to four weeks and also appears without the typical accompanying symptoms of a cold, such as a runny nose or cough. Depending on the size and location of the tongue tumor, patients suffer from difficulty swallowing. You also have trouble speaking.

Small wounds occur under the tongue or in the areas to the side of the tongue. It is striking that the sores do not heal and / or recur even after a period of around two weeks. Bleeding often also develops. Due to the hidden location, these are often noticed only late, for example due to a reddish discoloration of the saliva.

Another symptom of tongue cancer is swelling of the lymph nodes in the lower jaw and neck. Likewise, patients often have an unpleasant bad breath due to the decay of tumor cells. Tongue cancer can also change the sense of taste. Flavors are then perceived differently or no longer at all.

B symptoms of tongue cancer

In addition to these local complaints, many patients with tumor disease also show systemic symptoms. They often feel tired and exhausted and report a drop in performance with a pronounced feeling of weakness. A rapid and above all unwanted weight loss occurs especially in the advanced stage of the disease.

Another symptom of these so-called B symptoms is night sweats. The patients wake up drenched in sweat at night. The development of sweat is so strong that the nightwear is soaked with sweat, although the duvet is not too thick and the temperature in the bedroom is optimal. The combination of night sweats, fever and a significant, unwanted weight loss can also occur in inflammatory diseases such as tuberculosis or HIV, but is also a symptom of a tumor.

Tongue cancer - the appearance

Tongue carcinoma can appear in many different forms and forms. The tongue margin is the most common location for the tumor, the cancerous tumor occurs less frequently on the back of the tongue or on the base of the tongue. The tongue tumor often spreads to neighboring body structures such as the larynx. Especially tumors located in the back of the tongue can cause serious tissue damage in the mouth and throat.

The tumors can lie flat in the tongue mucosa or protrude above it. Firm, spherical structures appear as well as hardened strands in the tongue.

Leukoplakia and erythroplakia are also the most important potentially malignant changes. In many patients they show up before the actual tongue tumor and are therefore also referred to as precancerous diseases. Leukoplakia is also known as white calluses. White spots on the mucous membrane are typical and cannot be wiped off. In the case of erythroplakia, which has a higher risk of degeneration, the spots are reddish.

The causes of tongue cancer

In most cases, a malignant tumor does not have a single cause. Rather, it is a multifactorial event. Possible causes of tongue cancer include:

  • Smoke,
  • increased alcohol consumption
  • and poor oral hygiene.

Smoking and alcohol

The genetic predisposition seems to have an influence. The cancer itself is not inherited directly, but the predisposition to the malignant disease. But one's lifestyle influences the risk of cancer far more. The biggest risk factor for tongue cancer is smoking. Without a doubt, not all smokers develop this type of cancer in their lifetime, yet around 90 percent of all sufferers are or were heavy smokers. The mixture of distillation and combustion products that are created when the tobacco is burned contains more than 50 carcinogenic substances. These damage the genetic material in the cells. The mucous membranes in the mouth come into direct contact with the carcinogenic substances and are particularly at risk of suffering damage.

Especially in combination with alcohol addiction, smoking poses a great risk. High-proof alcoholic beverages such as brandy or schnapps in particular irritate the mucous membranes in the mouth and throat area. Anyone who not only smokes, but also often drinks high-percentage alcohol, is more than twice as likely to get sick as a smoker alone.

Oral hygiene

Oral hygiene also plays an important role in the development of tongue cancer. Mechanical irritation, for example due to incorrectly fitting dentures or sharp tooth edges, is a risk factor. Inadequate oral hygiene can lead not only to gingivitis, but also to inflammation of the tongue mucosa. This also increases the likelihood of tongue cancer.

Tongue cancer from HPV

HPV is a common abbreviation for human papillomavirus. Only a few of the over 150 different viruses that belong to this group increase the risk of developing cancer. These high-risk types include HPV 16, 18, 45 and 31. The connection to HPV infections is especially known in cervical cancer. In the case of tongue cancer, the risk of a malignant disease from HPV infection is estimated to be low, but it is nevertheless present. HPV is transmitted primarily through skin or mucosal contact in the context of sexual acts. During oral sex, the pathogen can get into the mouth and spread there. HP viruses can also be transmitted through shared towels or hygiene items such as toothbrushes.

Treatment of tongue cancer

Both conventional and alternative methods are available for the treatment of tongue cancer. They can be used individually or in combination.

Surgical treatment procedures

Whether surgery is possible depends primarily on the exact location of the tumor. Metastasis to neighboring organs or lymph nodes must also be considered. Surgery is suitable for removing small tumors that are located in the front, movable part of the tongue. Carcinomas of the base of the tongue have usually spread to neighboring structures and are therefore rather difficult to operate. It is often not sufficient to surgically remove only parts of the tongue. The lower jaw must then also be removed.

Whenever the neck lymph nodes are also affected by the cancer, a so-called throat clearing is carried out. With radical throat clearing, not only the tongue tumor and the affected lymph nodes, but also various muscles and nerve tracts are removed. This is a more difficult procedure, which is associated with a large loss of tissue and thus with many restrictions for the patient.

Radiotherapy for tongue cancer

A distinction can be made between primary and postoperative radiation therapy. The smaller the tumor, the easier it is to remove it. For this reason, radiation therapy is carried out before the surgical intervention, especially if there is extensive cancer. The tumor is said to shrink with the help of radiation. With primary radiation therapy, however, only radiation is used. Primary radiation is particularly suitable for treating smaller carcinomas in the early stages of the disease.

Combination therapy - radiation and chemotherapy

Current treatment concepts mostly provide a combination of radiation, chemotherapy and surgery. Radiation and chemotherapy are used to reduce the size of the tumor so that the surgeon can remove it easily and with less risk of complications.

Naturopathy for tongue cancer

In the case of tongue cancer, surgery is usually inevitable for a good prognosis. Various therapies and remedies from the naturopathic area can, however, be used in addition.

Nutritional therapy for tongue cancer

A nutrient-poor diet with a low fruit and vegetable content is considered one of the risk factors for cancer. A varied diet with a high proportion of plant-based foods is recommended. To ensure the supply of vitamins, minerals, fiber and health-promoting secondary plant substances, at least three servings of vegetables and two servings of fruit should be consumed daily.

Fats from vegetable oils and sea fish provide essential fatty acids and, in addition, vitamin E. Sugar or foods that contain a lot of sugar, on the other hand, do not belong on the daily menu or only in exceptional cases. Various foods can specifically boost the immune system. For example, blueberries contain a large amount of vitamin C and antioxidants. Antioxidants protect against harmful free radicals, which can change the genetic material of the cells. Strawberries, raspberries, broccoli and garlic are equally suitable.

Oil-protein diet according to Johanna Budwig

The oil-protein diet according to Johanna Budwig is often mentioned when it comes to the topic of nutrition in cancer. Patients on this diet should avoid animal products and foods that contain trans fats. Skimmed curd and cottage cheese are exceptions. The diet also includes sauerkraut juice and a quark linseed oil dish. There are also raw foods, steamed vegetables, buckwheat, linseed and freshly squeezed vegetable juices.

Mistletoe therapy in cancer treatment

Mistletoe therapy is one of the complementary procedures most commonly used in cancer treatment. Mistletoe contains various ingredients such as mistletoe lectins and viscotoxins, which can activate the body's immune system. Mistletoe therapy is also used to improve the general quality of life and to reduce the side effects of conventional treatment. With mistletoe therapy, the doctor injects mistletoe extract under the patient's skin. The frequency and duration of use depend on the one hand on the mistletoe preparation and on the other hand on the patient's condition. The mistletoe preparations of traditional phytotherapy contain a standardized amount of active ingredients and are administered in a constant dose. Anthroposophy, on the other hand, takes the different types of mistletoe into account and also differentiates between male and female plants. The dose does not always remain the same here, but is usually increased gradually.

Stabilizing the psyche with mind body medicine

Not only the body, but also the psyche is particularly exposed to cancer. Mind body medicine is based on a holistic concept of body, mind and soul. The focus is not on the disease itself, but above all on maintaining one's own health. Patients learn how to deal with stress, find meaning in their lives and work on their emotions.

Traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) for tongue cancer

Another very popular alternative medical procedure in cancer therapy is TCM. This millennial treatment concept defines health and the causes of illness in a very different way than Western medicine. Traditional diagnostic methods include, for example, tongue and pulse diagnostics. With the help of herbal recipes, acupuncture, tuina massage or acupressure, the body's balance is to be restored and the body's strengths strengthened. (fp)

Author and source information

This text corresponds to the specifications of the medical literature, medical guidelines and current studies and has been checked by medical doctors.

Dipl. Geogr. Fabian Peters


  • German Cancer Aid Foundation: Guide to cancer of the mouth, jaw, face area (accessed: June 24, 2019), krebshilfe.de
  • Austrian Cancer Aid Cancer Society: Cancer in the mouth (accessed: June 24, 2019), krebshilfe.net
  • ONKO Internet portal of the German Cancer Society: Head and Neck Tumors (accessed: June 24, 2019), krebsgesellschaft.de
  • Austria's public health portal: Tongue cancer (accessed: June 24, 2019), gesundheit.gv.at
  • Cancer Research UK: About tongue cancer (accessed: June 24, 2019), cancerresearchuk.org
  • Mayo Clinic: Mouth cancer (accessed: June 24, 2019), mayoclinic.org

ICD codes for this disease: C02ICD codes are internationally valid encryption for medical diagnoses. You can find yourself e.g. in doctor's letters or on disability certificates.

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