What are lip cancers?
Lip cancers are abnormal cells that
grow out of control and form lesions or tumors on the lips. They are the most
common type of oral cancers. These cancers develop in thin, flat cells — called
squamous cells — that line the lips, mouth, tongue, cheeks, sinuses, throat,
and hard and soft palates.
Lip cancer and other kinds of oral
cancers are types of head and neck cancers.
Certain lifestyle choices, such as
smoking, drinking, sun exposure, and tanning, increase your risk of developing
lip cancer. Dentists are typically the first to notice signs of lip cancers,
often during a routine dental exam.
Lip cancers are highly curable when
What causes lip cancers?
According to the National
Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research,
most cases of oral cancer are linked to tobacco use and heavy alcohol use.
Sun exposure is also a major risk
factor, especially for people who work outdoors since they are more likely to
have prolonged sun exposure.
Who is at risk for lip cancers?
Your behaviors and lifestyle heavily
influence your risk for lip cancers. More than 36,000 people are diagnosed with oral cancer each year. Factors that may
increase your risk for lip cancers include:
- smoking or using tobacco products
(cigarettes, cigars, pipes, or chewing tobacco)
- heavy use of alcohol
- exposure to direct sunlight (both
natural and artificial), including the use of tanning beds, over long periods
- having a fair complexion or
- being male
- infection with human papillomavirus
(HPV), a sexually transmitted virus
- being older than 40 years of age
The majority of oral cancers are
linked to tobacco use. The risk is even higher for people who use both tobacco
and drink alcohol, compared with those who use only one of the two.
What are the symptoms of lip cancers?
Signs and symptoms of lip cancers
- a sore, lesion, blister, ulcer, or lump on the mouth that does not go
- a red or white patch on the lip
- bleeding or pain on the lips
- swelling of the jaw
Lip cancers may not have any symptoms
and are sometimes first noticed by a dentist during a regular dental exam. If
you have a sore or lump on your lips, it doesn’t necessarily mean you have lip
cancer. Discuss your symptoms with your dentist or doctor.
How are lip cancers diagnosed?
If you have signs or symptoms of lip
cancer, you should see your doctor. They will perform a physical exam of your
lips and other parts of your mouth to search for abnormal areas and try to
identify possible causes.
Your doctor will use a gloved finger
to feel inside your lips and use mirrors and lights to examine the inside of your
mouth. They may also feel your neck for swollen lymph nodes.
Your doctor will also ask you about
- health history
- smoking and alcohol history
- past illnesses
- medical and dental treatments
- family history of disease
- any medications you’re taking
If lip cancer is suspected, a biopsy
can confirm the diagnosis. During this procedure, a small sample of the
abnormal area is taken and reviewed in a pathology laboratory under a
microscope. If your doctor confirms that you have lip cancer, they may then perform
a number of other tests to determine how far the cancer has progressed, or if
it has spread to other parts of the body.
Tests may include:
- computed tomography (CT) scan
- MRI scan
- positron emission tomography (PET) scan
- chest X-ray
- complete blood count (CBC)
- endoscopy (a thin instrument inserted through an incision that allows a
physician to view inside the body)
How are lip cancers treated?
Surgery, radiation therapy, and
chemotherapy are just some of the treatments available for lip cancer. Other
possible options include targeted therapy and investigative treatments, such as
immunotherapy and gene therapy.
As with other cancers, lip cancer treatment
depends on the stage of the cancer, how far it has progressed (including the
size of the tumor), and your general health.
If the tumor is small, surgery is
typically performed to remove it. This involves removal of all tissue involved
with the cancer, plus reconstruction of the lip (cosmetically and
If the tumor is larger or at a later
stage, radiation and chemotherapy may be used to shrink the tumor before or
after surgery to reduce the risk of recurrence. Chemotherapy treatments deliver
drugs throughout the body and reduce the risk of the cancer spreading or
For those who smoke, quitting smoking
before treatment can improve treatment outcomes.
What are potential complications of lip cancers?
If left untreated, a lip tumor can
spread to other areas of the mouth and tongue as well as distant parts of the
body. If the cancer spreads, it becomes much more difficult to cure.
Additionally, treatment for lip
cancers can have many negative functional and cosmetic consequences. People who
have surgery to remove large tumors on their lips may experience trouble with
speech, chewing, and swallowing after the surgery.
Surgery can also result in disfiguring
of the lip and face. Some people may need to work with a speech pathologist to
improve speech, and reconstructive or cosmetic surgeons to rebuild the bones
and tissues of the face.
Some side effects of chemotherapy and
- hair loss
- weakness and fatigue
- poor appetite
- numbness in the hands and feet
- severe anemia
- weight loss
- dry skin
- sore throat
- change in taste
- inflamed mucous membranes in the mouth
What is the outlook for lip cancers?
Lip cancers are very curable. This is
because the lips are prominent and visible, and lesions can be seen and felt
easily. This allows for early diagnosis. The chance of survival after treatment,
without recurrence at 5 years, is greater than 90 percent.
If you have had lip cancers in the
past, you have an increased chance of developing a second cancer in the head,
neck, or mouth. After finishing treatment for lip cancer, you should see your
doctor for frequent checkups and follow-up visits.
How can lip cancers be prevented?
Lip cancers can be prevented by
avoiding the use of all types of tobacco, avoiding excessive alcohol intake,
and limiting exposure to both natural and artificial sunlight, particularly the
use of tanning beds.
Since many lip cancers are first
discovered by dentists, it’s important to make regular dental appointments with
a licensed professional, especially if you’re at an increased risk for lip