What is tongue cancer?

Tongue cancer is a malignant tumour that can occur at the front or back of the tongue.

Said Associate Professor Christopher Goh, the head and senior consultant in the department of otolaryngology at Singapore General Hospital: 'Tongue cancer is not common in Singapore. It is not one of the top 10 cancers that affects Singaporeans. However, we still see a fair number of new cases per year.

'It is even less common for the young to get it.

'The chance of getting tongue cancer rises when one is over 45."

Prof Goh estimates that there are 40 to 50 new cases of tongue cancer diagnosed and treated in Singapore every year.

The most common type of tongue cancer, he said, is squamous cell carcinoma. Squamous cells are flat, thin cells that line the oral cavity.

Dr Stephen Lee, a specialist in ear, nose and throat surgery and managing partner at Raffles Hospital, said: 'Smoking and drinking huge quantities of alcohol predispose a person to developing tongue cancer. It is also common in people who chew betel nuts.'

Symptoms include red or white patches or lumps and ulcers on the tongue which persist despite treatment. Sometimes, there may be pain on the tongue and throat or persistent numbness, said Dr Lee.

'However, the presence of such symptoms may not indicate tongue cancer as there may be other causes,' he said, adding that a patient must consult a doctor if the symptoms do not disappear after two weeks.

Treatment may involve the resection (surgical removal) of the tumour or a combination of surgery and radiotherapy, said Dr Lee.

'In bigger tumours or when a decision is made not to resect, a combination of radiotherapy with chemotherapy is often done,' he said.

Speech and swallowing functions may be affected depending on the position of the tumour and size of the surgical excision.

'If the cancer affects the front of the tongue, speech is more likely to be affected. If it is positioned at the back of the tongue, the swallowing function becomes a more important issue to deal with,' said Prof Goh.


This article was first published in Mind Your Body, The Straits Times.