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 diagnosed early.
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.
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 light-colored skin
- 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.
Signs and symptoms of lip cancers include:
- a sore, lesion, blister, ulcer, or lump on the mouth that does not go away
- 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.
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 your:
- 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)
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 functionally).
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 returning.
For those who smoke, quitting smoking before treatment can improve treatment outcomes.
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 radiation include:
- 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 (oral mucositis)
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.
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 cancers.