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Tongue cancer: A persistent mouth ulcer could indicate your risk to the disease

Tom Parker speaks about his cancer treatment in 2021

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Tongue cancer is a type of head and neck cancer. It occurs when abnormal cells start to divide and grow in an uncontrolled way. Symptoms can include an ulcer which does not go away.

The most common type of tongue cancer is called squamous cell carcinoma.

Squamous cells are thin, flat cells that are present on the surface of the skin and the tongue, in the lining of the digestive and respiratory tracts, and in the lining of the mouth, throat, thyroid, and larynx.

The primary symptoms of tongue cancer are a painful tongue and the development of a sore on the tongue.

The symptoms of tongue cancer might include:

  • A red or white patch on the tongue that won’t go away
  • A sore throat that doesn’t go away
  • A sore spot (ulcer) or lump on the tongue that doesn’t go away
  • Pain when swallowing
  • Numbness in the mouth that won’t go away
  • Pain or burning feeling over the tongue
  • Problems moving your tongue or speaking
  • A lump in the neck
  • Unexplained bleeding from the tongue (that’s not caused by biting your tongue or another injury)
  • Pain in the ear (rare).

Risk factors for tongue cancer include:

  • Smoking tobacco (cigarettes, cigars and pipes)
  • Regularly drinking a lot of alcohol
  • Infection with a virus called human papilloma virus (HPV).

“(HPV) is a type of virus that infects the skin and cells lining the inside of the body,” said Cancer Research UK.

The health charity added: “For most people, the infection will get better on its own and they will never know they had it.

“This is a common virus that causes no harm in most people. But in some people, the virus can cause changes in the mouth and tongue that can increase the risk of cancer in that area.”


Anyone concerned that they might have tongue cancer should make an appointment with a doctor as soon as possible.

If a doctor suspects that tongue cancer is present, they will perform a biopsy.

This will involve them removing some tissue and sending it off for testing.

If the biopsy results confirm cancer, a doctor may recommend a CT scan or MRI scan, which will show whether or not cancer has spread to other parts of the body.

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