What is lip cancer?
Lip cancer occurs when abnormal cells grow out of control, resulting in tumors or lesions on the lips. A type of squamous cell carcinoma, lip cancer can develop on either the upper or lower lip, but it’s more common on the lower lip.
Who does lip cancer affect?
Lip cancer can affect anyone, but it’s most common in males with light skin over the age of 50. People who use tobacco, drink excessive amounts of alcohol or have prolonged sun exposure are more likely to develop the condition. Also, people who are immunocompromised due to having an organ transplant can be at increased risk.
How common is lip cancer?
While lip cancer is the most common type of oral cancer, it accounts for approximately 0.6% of all cancers in the United States. Approximately 40,000 cases of lip cancer are diagnosed each year.
What does lip cancer look like?
Lip cancer often looks like a mouth sore that won’t heal. In people with light skin, this sore may appear reddish. In people with darker skin, it may appear dark brown or gray. Lip cancer can look different for everyone, so if you notice something strange, you should call your healthcare provider for an appointment.
Lip cancer vs cold sore: What’s the difference?
Lip cancer lesions can look a lot like cold sores when they first appear. The difference is, cold sores usually go away on their own in about 10 days. Lip cancer lesions will linger.
Symptoms and Causes
What are the symptoms of lip cancer?
Early stage lip cancer may look like a flat or slightly raised patch of discoloration. Other lip cancer symptoms include:
- A sore, lump, blister or ulcer that won’t go away.
- Swelling of the jaw.
What causes lip cancer?
Experts aren’t sure exactly what causes lip cancer to occur, but there are several factors that drastically increase your risk for developing the condition. Major risk factors include:
- Tobacco use. (This includes smoking cigarettes, cigars and pipes, and using snuff and chewing tobacco.)
- Heavy alcohol use.
- Excessive sun exposure.
- Having fair skin.
- Being over the age of 40.
- Being male.
- Having HPV (human papillomavirus virus).
- A weakened immune system.
Most lip cancers are linked to tobacco use. People who drink in addition to using tobacco are at an even higher risk of developing the disease.
Diagnosis and Tests
How is lip cancer diagnosed?
In many cases, lip cancer is first spotted by dentists during routine exams and cleanings. If your doctor or dentist suspects lip cancer, they may recommend diagnostic tests, including:
- Physical examination. During this assessment, your healthcare provider will examine your lip and ask about your symptoms. They’ll also look at your mouth, face and neck to check for signs of cancer.
- Complete blood count (CBC): This test can tell your healthcare provider if there are notable increases or decreases in your blood cell counts. A CBC is useful for diagnosing a wide range of conditions, including cancer.
- Soft tissue biopsy. A small sample of the affected tissue is removed and sent to a pathology lab for further analysis.
- Imaging tests. Your healthcare provider may take a CT (computed tomography) scan, a PET scan or use magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to find out if cancer has spread beyond the lip.
- Endoscopy. If your provider suspects that cancer cells have spread beyond your lip, they may perform an endoscopy. During this procedure, a small, flexible camera is passed down your throat to look for signs of cancer.
Management and Treatment
How is lip cancer treated?
There are several approaches, and the best treatment depends on the size and stage of the cancer. Lip cancer treatments include:
- Surgery. Your surgeon removes the cancer lesion and repairs the lip. If you have a large tumor, reconstructive surgery can restore your appearance.
- Radiation therapy. This treatment uses powerful X-ray beams to target and kill cancer. Radiation therapy may be used as a standalone treatment, or it may be recommended after surgery to eliminate any remaining cancer cells.
- Chemotherapy. Drugs are given in pill form or through a vein (intravenously) to kill cancer cells. Sometimes chemotherapy is combined with radiation therapy. If your lip cancer has spread to other parts of your body and no other treatments are available, then chemotherapy may be recommended to ease your symptoms.
- Targeted drug therapy. Usually combined with chemotherapy, this approach targets certain genes and proteins of cancer cells. This can interfere with the environment of the cancer cells and cause them to die.
- Immunotherapy. This boosts your own body’s immune system and helps it fight off cancer cells. Immunotherapy may be used alone or in combination with other cancer treatments. For lip cancer, immunotherapy is typically only used when the cancer is advanced and when other treatments aren’t an option.
Are there complications regarding lip cancer treatment?
As with any medical treatment, there is always a risk for complications. People who undergo surgery for lip cancer may deal with lip, smaller mouth opening or facial disfigurement, depending on how much tissue is removed. In these cases, plastic reconstructive surgery can restore your appearance. If your speech has been affected, a speech therapist can be of great benefit.
Other general side effects related to cancer treatments include:
- Nausea and vomiting.
- Hair loss.
- Loss of appetite.
- Weight loss.
- Dry skin.
- Sore throat.
- Increased vulnerability to infection.
How soon after treatment will I feel better?
It depends on several factors, including what type of treatment you receive and your body’s healing capacity. People with early stage lip cancer who have surgery typically recover within three weeks. If you undergo radiation therapy or chemotherapy, it may take several months to fully feel like yourself again.
How can I reduce my risk for lip cancer?
Reduce your risk for lip cancer by avoiding common risk factors:
- Don’t smoke. Tobacco use is the leading risk factor for lip cancer and cancers of the mouth. If you smoke, consider quitting.
- Avoid heavy alcohol use. If you drink, do so in moderation.
- Use proper sun protection. Apply lip balm with SPF any time you’re outside and wear sunscreen daily to prevent other types of skin cancer.
- Reduce your risk for HPV. Practice safe sex and consider getting an HPV vaccine.
- Undergo routine oral cancer screenings. Your primary care physician or your dentist can perform these screenings to ensure that no abnormalities have developed.
Outlook / Prognosis
What can I expect if I have lip cancer?
Lip cancer is more predictable when treated in the early stages. With an early diagnosis, you’ll likely need surgery to address the problem. Chemotherapy, radiation therapy and other cancer treatments will be recommended if the cancer cells have spread to other areas of your body. Your healthcare provider can tell you what to expect in regards to your treatment.
Is lip cancer fatal?
Not usually. Because lip cancer lesions develop in easily seen locations, this type of cancer is detected and treated early in most cases. As a result, lip cancer has an overall five-year survival rate of 92%. This means that 92% of people diagnosed with the condition are still alive five years later. Keep in mind that survival rates are estimates. They can’t offer details about your case or tell you how long you’ll live. If you have more questions about survival rates, ask your healthcare provider.
When should I see my healthcare provider?
You should schedule a visit with your healthcare provider anytime you notice changes in the skin on your lips. In particular, if you develop a sore on your lip that lasts for more than two weeks, you should call your provider right away.
What questions should I ask my healthcare provider?
Learning as much as you can about your diagnosis can help you make well-informed decisions about your treatment and overall health. Here are some questions you can ask your healthcare provider:
- What stage lip cancer do I have?
- Has the cancer spread anywhere else?
- What are my treatment options?
- What side effects should I expect?
- How will treatment affect my daily life?
- Will I be able to work while undergoing treatment?
- What resources do you recommend?
A note from Cleveland Clinic
A lip cancer diagnosis can feel scary or hopeless, particularly if treatment leads to facial disfigurement. However, advanced cancer treatments and methods in reconstructive surgery can restore your health and your appearance. Talk to your healthcare provider about your treatment options and consider joining an oral cancer support group. Being around other people who are going through the same thing can be beneficial to your mental, emotional and spiritual health.
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