Patients' Resources

Tongue cancer is a growing health concern in Singapore.  An article published by the National Cancer Centre Singapore reported that the incidence of tongue cancer among young Singaporean women has increased up to 5 folds in the past 10 years.

As your oncologist would explain, tongue cancer occurs when cancer cells grow in the front two thirds of the tongue.

Here are 9 questions to ask your oncologist if you suspect yourself to have tongue cancer. Some of these questions are answered below:

  1. What causes tongue cancer?
  2. Am I at risk?
  3. Do all smokers end up having tongue cancer?
  4. Does oral sex have anything to do with developing tongue cancer?
  5. What are ways to screen for tongue cancer?
  6. What are ways to treat it?
  7. What are the chances for success of treatment?
  8. Can tongue cancer spread?
  9. Can I still talk normally after I have been diagnosed with tongue cancer?

Tongue Cancer Causes And Risk Factors

Aside from smoking and over-consumption of alcohol, your oncologist will identify these causes and risk factors for developing tongue cancer:

  • Infection with Human Papillomavirus (HPV). HPV is a virus that infects the moist surfaces of the mouth, including the tongue, throat, inside of the cheeks and tonsils. The moist surfaces are also called squamous cells. Thus, your oncologist may typically detect a squamous cell carcinoma, the most common type of tongue cancer.
  • Oral Sex. Because HPV is transferred by contact of these moist areas, studies have linked oral sex as a risk factor for tongue cancer.
  • Chewing betel nut. Your oncologist will point out that chewing betel nut causes precancerous lesions in the tongue. Aside from your oncologist, your dentist will also advise you to discontinue this habit before it gives more oral cavity problems.

Remember that not all people with risk factors will develop tongue cancer. Similarly, people who do not have risk factors are not 100% assured that they will not develop the disease. It is best to visit your oncologist to ascertain if you are at risk.

Tongue Cancer Signs And Symptoms

You should see your oncologist for a tongue cancer screening if you observe these signs and symptoms:

  • Difficulty moving the tongue or swallowing
  • Red or white patches and lesions
  • Lumps in the front or back of the tongue

Tongue Cancer Screening

Once your oncologist detects signs and symptoms of tongue cancer, he or she may order the following screening procedures to confirm the cancer and its stage:

  • Physical exam. As well as being checked by a doctor, your dentist may conduct a physical exam of the entire oral cavity for lesions, lumps or any abnormal growth. Once detected, these primary care providers may refer you to an oncologist for further screening. Your oncologist will review your past habits and illnesses to see if any of these pose a risk to developing cancer.
  • Endoscopy. Your oncologist may also conduct an endoscopy, a procedure that looks at tissues inside your oral cavity for any abnormality. Your oncologist would make a cut into your tongue and insert the endoscope, a tube with a lighted tip, to be able to view the tissues. In some cases, your oncologist in Singapore will also use a tool to obtain samples for further laboratory checking. This latter procedure is called a biopsy.
  • Scans. Your oncologist may order a CT scan, PET scan or MRI scan. Both CT and MRI scans take detailed pictures of your tongue. PET scan or positron emission tomography scan detects malignant or cancerous tumours.

Tongue Cancer Treatment

Your oncologist will oversee the tongue cancer treatment. He or she may also refer you to a head and neck specialist because tongue cancer may affect breathing, eating, and talking.

Two types of treatment are standard for tongue cancer. These are:

  1. Surgery, which is the removal of the cancerous part of the tongue by an operation, and
  2. Chemotherapy and Radiation therapy, which follows surgery, to further shrink the malignant tumour.

Up to 90% of stage 1 tongue cancer can be cured with surgery. Other tongue cancer treatments are in clinical stages. Talk to your oncologist in Singapore if you want to take part in these clinical trials.