Lip cancer is a type of oral cancer. It develops in the squamous cells that line certain oral and facial structures — such as the lips, tongue, cheeks and throat. Lip cancer has a high survival rate because the condition is often diagnosed in the early stages. Treatment options include surgery, chemotherapy and radiation therapy.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
Early stage lip cancer may look like a flat or slightly raised patch of discoloration. Other lip cancer symptoms include:
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:
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.
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:
There are several approaches, and the best treatment depends on the size and stage of the cancer. Lip cancer treatments include:
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:
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.
Reduce your risk for lip cancer by avoiding common risk factors:
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
Last reviewed by a Cleveland Clinic medical professional on 10/21/2021.
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