Tongue cancer comes under the category of oral cancer. In this condition, the squamous cells present on the surface of the tongue become cancerous, which means the cells start growing and dividing uncontrollably). 

How Do Taste Buds Work? And How Many Taste Buds Do Humans Have?

The tongue has tiny sensory organs on its surface, referred to as taste buds. These taste buds possess highly sensitive microvilli (microscopic hairs), which send signals (taste messages) to the brain through the nerve terminals. The chemical reaction between the nerve endings and the food determines the type of taste the food has, salty, sweet, bitter, or sour. The number of taste buds on a person’s tongue can range from 2000 to 8000, and these are replaced with taste buds within 10 days. 

Preventing or healing damaged taste buds

Inflamed or swollen taste buds may hinder enjoying your favourite food. This irritation may arise from a dry mouth, eating extremely hot food, spicy food, or allergies. Damaged taste buds can be recovered or healed by following these below-given tips:

Easy Tips to heal the Inflamed Taste Buds

  1. 1. Rinse the mouth with salt water twice a day
  2. 2. Pressing the ice cube against the inflamed area on the tongue’s surface thrice a day will soothe the inflamed region.
  3. 3. Soft Toothbrush: At times, inflamed taste buds might be due to food particles or grime on the tongue. Brushing the teeth with a soft toothbrush and a medicated toothpaste will help in getting rid of the grime and hence, the inflammations.
  4. 4. Eat Soothing Foods: Opting for cool and creamy foods like smoothies, curd, and ice cream, will work until the taste buds are healed completely. 
  5. 5. Avoid smoking, alcohol, and tobacco

Symptoms of Tongue Cancer

The symptoms of tongue cancer might include:

  • 1. Persistent white or red patches on the tongue 
  • 2. Sore throat 
  • 3. A sore spot (ulcer) or lump on the tongue
  • 4. Pain or difficulty in swallowing
  • 5. Burning or inflammation over the tongue
  • 6. Problems moving your tongue or speaking
  • 7. A lump in the neck
  • 8. Unexplained tongue bleeding 
  • 9. Numbness in the mouth 

Causes of Tongue Cancer

People with age above 40 are at high risk of tongue cancer. Other risk factors include,

  1. 1. Drinking alcohol 
  2. 2. Smoking
  3. 3. Tobacco 
  4. 4. Human Papillomavirus (HPV) infection
  5. 5. Excess body weight
  6. 6. Ultraviolet (UV) light
  7. 7. Poor nutrition
  8. 8. Genetic syndromes like Fanconi anemia and dyskeratosis congenita
  9. 9. Irritation from dentures
  10. 10. Oral Health

Prevention of Tongue Cancer

9 easy tips to prevent tongue cancer: 

  1. 1. Maintaining good oral health-Avoid chewing paan or betel nut
  2. 2. Avoid chewing tobacco
  3. 3. Quit SmokingSmoking
  4. 4. Limit sun exposure
  5. 5. Exercise regularly.
  6. 6. Opt for food containing antioxidant and anticancer substances
  7. 7. Avoid Unprotected oral sex
  8. 8. Perform self-oral examination- sides and back of the tongue must be checked for white or red patches
  9. 9. Visit to dental clinics

Treatment of Tongue Cancer

Tongue cancer treatment naturally

Natural remedies cannot completely cure tongue cancer. However, alternative or complementary medicine treatments may aid in coping with the side effects of tongue cancer treatment, like fatigue.

Natural therapies to prevent oral cancer

Some of the natural compounds in fruits and vegetables help maintain oral cancers at bay. These natural compounds include phytochemicals, chemotherapeutic agents, chemopreventive agents, and antioxidants. Foods rich in vitamin A, C, and E, selenium, spirulina, neem, green tea, tomatoes, turmeric, possess antioxidant properties, and a few mushrooms act as chemopreventive and chemotherapeutic agents, which will help in preventing oral cancer.

Treating tongue cancer

The treatment for tongue cancer largely depends on the stage, size of nodules, the severity of invasion and spread. Major tongue cancer treatments include:

  1. 1. Surgery
  2. 2. Radiotherapy 
  3. 3. Chemotherapy

Early-stage cancer treatment

When the tumor in the tongue is smaller than 4 cm, it is considered early cancer. Undergoing surgery to remove the tumor or nodules to treat this condition is quite common. However, to prevent cancer from reverting, surgical procedure is often followed by radiotherapy, and this treatment process is termed adjuvant radiotherapy.

Locally advanced cancer treatment

When the diagnosed cancer appears to spread over to nearby tissues of the tongue having a size larger than 4 cm Cancer, it is considered as locally advanced cancer.

Treatment options for locally advanced cancer include,

  • 1. Chemotherapy
  • 2. Surgical removal of cancer on the tongue and lymph nodes in the neck
  • 3. Radiotherapy after surgery
  • 4. Reconstructive surgery for tongue
  • 5. Immunotherapy and targeted drugs
  • 6. Chemotherapy combined with radiotherapy (Chemoradiotherapy)


Primary tumor resection is the surgical process of removing all the cancerous cells and the area around that region to ensure that the cancerous cells have been removed completely. 

There are various ways of carrying out primary tumor resection, depending on the location of the cancer. 

Laser surgery: In this simple operation for small-sized cancer using local anaesthetics.

Glossectomy For larger cancers, part or complete front tongue, is surgically removed to stop the spread of cancer to other parts of the mouth. 

Neck dissection: In this process, the affected lymph nodes from one or both sides of your neck are removed surgically. It prevents cancer in the neck from reverting.

Radiotherapy: This therapy involves the killing of cancerous cells using ionising radiation. Various ways to get the radiotherapy done include,

  1. 1. After surgery or as the main treatment 
  2. 2. Chemoradiotherapy: radiotherapy can be combined with chemotherapy
  3. 3. To get relief from advanced tongue cancer symptoms 

Side effects

Dry mouth, sore mouth, or change in taste are the side effects of radiotherapy.


This therapy involves using cytotoxic or anticancer drugs to kill or destroy cancerous cells. 

Chemoradiotherapy is followed by a PET scan a few months later to ensure that lymph nodes do not have any cancer. If there is cancer in lymph nodes, these are surgically removed.

Some of the effective drugs to kill cancer cells are: 

  1. 1. Cisplatin
  2. 2. Fluorouracil (5FU) 
  3. 3. Carboplatin

Side effects 

Feeling sick all the time and decreased resistance to infections are the side effects of chemotherapeutic drugs. 

Targeted and immunotherapy cancer drugs

Cetuximab (Erbitux)

Cetuximab is a monoclonal antibody prescribed to treat squamous cell cancer of the mouth and oropharynx region. This targeted drug is often prescribed in the following cases, 

  • 1. When the cisplatin or carboplatin chemotherapy did not work
  • 2. The patient cannot have chemotherapy

Nivolumab (Opdivo)

Nivolumab is a monoclonal antibody that stimulates the body’s immune system to fight against cancer.

Pembrolizumab (Keytruda)

Pembrolizumab is an immunotherapeutic drug effective against head and neck cancer that has not previously been treated or recurred.

Diagnosis of Tongue Cancer

Physical examination involves checking the patient’s tongue, neck and throat (using a long-handled mirror) for inflammation.

Major tongue diagnostic tests include:

  1. 1. X-rays of the mouth and throat, 
  2. 2. CT scans  (computed tomography scans)
  3. 3. PET scans (positron emission tomography), 
  4. 4. Biopsy, a sample of tongue tissue is taken and examined for cancer diagnosis.

There are various methods for taking the sample:

  1. 1. Fine needle aspiration biopsy, in which a fine needle is injected into the tumor mass to draw out a small amount of sample into the syringe.
  2. 2. Incisional biopsy uses a surgical knife (scalpel) to take the sample 
  3. 3. Punch biopsy involves using a circular blade to take up a round area of the tissue sample.

Complications of Tongue Cancer

Oral cancer and its treatment can cause various complications, which include, 

Dysphagia (difficulty in swallowing)

In dysphagia, the therapist will carry out a videofluoroscopy, in which the swallowing reflex of a person is observed through an X-ray. 


The ability to speak becomes a problem after radiotherapy and surgeries for mouth cancer. 

How long does tongue cancer last?

For tongue cancer: 

  • 1. Around 80 percent of the individuals survive their cancer for 1 year or more after diagnosis
  • 2. More than 60 percent of oral cancer patients survive for 5 years or more after diagnosis
  • 3. Around 50% survive tongue cancer for 10 years or more after diagnosis

Tongue cancer survival rate

What is the survival rate of Tongue cancer?

According to the research published in the American Cancer Society journal, 

83% of people with localized tongue cancer can have a relative survival rate of 5 years. 

69 % of individuals diagnosed with regional tongue cancer can survive till 5 years

41% of individuals with foreign tongue cancer can manage their survival till 5 years.

  • 1. Localized liver cancer: There is no sign that cancer has spread outside of the liver.
  • 2. Regional liver cancer has spread outside the liver to nearby structures or lymph nodes.
  • 3. Distant liver cancer: Cancer has spread to distant body parts, such as the lungs or bones.

However, survival rates for tongue carcinoma are considerably higher for patients who can undergo surgery to remove tongue cancer, regardless of the stage.

Home Remedies of Tongue Cancer

The primary treatment of oral cancers is surgery. However, there are various post-surgical complications with radiotherapy and chemotherapy. 

There are some natural compounds present in fruits and vegetables that help maintain oral cancers at bay. These natural compounds include phytochemicals, chemotherapeutic agents, chemopreventive agents, and antioxidants. Fruits and vegetables rich in vitamins A, C, and E. selenium, spirulina, neem, green tea, tomatoes, and turmeric, possess antioxidant properties, and some mushrooms act as chemopreventive and chemotherapeutic agents, which will help in preventing oral cancer.

Frequently Asked Questions

What does a cancerous tongue look like?

Cancerous tongue appears reddish-pink with lump on the sides of tongue margins. The numbness over the tongue is persistent. 

If cancer has not spread beyond the mouth or the part of your throat at the back of your mouth (oropharynx), a complete cure may be possible using surgery alone. If the cancer is large or has spread to your neck, the person is advised to undergo surgery, radiotherapy or chemotherapy.

Can tongue cancer be cured naturally?

Tongue cancer treatment involves surgery or chemotherapy. Opting for natural remedies cannot be a permanent treatment. However, alternative or complementary medicine treatments may aid in coping with the side effects of cancer treatment, such as fatigue.

Where does tongue cancer usually start?

Tongue cancer begins in the squamous cells of the tongue, when these cells start growing and dividing uncontrollably. 

How fast does tongue cancer spread?

Tongue cancer spreads quite rapidly, especially in the case of individuals with age above 40, alcohol and tobacco consumers and smokers. Oral cancers only take 5 years to move from stage I to stage IV.

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