After tongue cancer surgery, you may experience trouble swallowing and changes in your speech. Recovery time can vary depending on the type of surgery you have.

Tongue cancer surgery is a procedure to remove a cancerous tumor from your tongue. It may involve removing your entire tongue (total glossectomy) or part of your tongue (partial glossectomy), depending on the stage of the cancer.

In some cases, glossectomy may also include reconstructing your tongue or the part of your tongue that the surgeon removed.

A glossectomy can affect your ability to speak and swallow. But with the right aftercare, you may see an improvement in these functions.

After a glossectomy, you may need to stay in the hospital for up to 10 days. But if you also undergo reconstructive tongue surgery, you may need to stay in the hospital for up to 2 weeks.

The time frame for a full recovery depends on whether you have a total or partial glossectomy and whether you also undergo flap reconstruction. This is a procedure in which the surgeon uses a piece of tissue from elsewhere on your body to partially reconstruct your tongue.

Consider talking with your doctor or surgeon about your treatment options and expected recovery time for surgery for tongue cancer.

A glossectomy or partial glossectomy can affect your speech. According to a 2016 study, a glossectomy changes the volume and shape of your tongue, which can reduce contact between your tongue and your palate and create irregularities in airflow during speech. This can lead to difficulties with pronunciation and articulation.

Factors that seem to significantly affect speech quality after glossectomy include:

  • larger tumor size
  • tumor location near the back of your tongue
  • combined surgery and radiation therapy, as opposed to surgery alone

A speech and language therapist (SLT) can work with you to help you understand changes to your speech and provide you with tools to adapt to these changes.

An SLT may recommend exercises to improve your tongue’s strength and range of movement and your speech. These improvements may even be possible after a total glossectomy if you’ve also had reconstructive tongue surgery.

A glossectomy should not significantly impair your ability to taste, since much of that ability comes from smell. This means you should still be able to enjoy your favorite flavors.

But a total or partial glossectomy can affect swallowing. A tumor that is larger or located on the base of your tongue can increase your risk of swallowing difficulties.

An SLT can assess your swallowing ability and identify whether there’s a risk of any food and drink entering your windpipe and lungs. They can also advise you on different head positions and swallowing techniques that may make swallowing safer and easier.

A dietitian can assess your eating and swallowing and recommend easy-to-swallow foods that meet your nutritional needs.

After a glossectomy, you might need a temporary feeding tube until you can take in enough food by mouth. If you have a feeding tube, a dietitian can explain how it works and monitor your progress.

In a small 2020 study, researchers investigated the quality of life outcomes of 16 people who had undergone total glossectomy for cancer of the head and neck. The participants also received flap reconstruction to help reconstruct their tongues.

In addition, all participants had access to speech and swallowing rehabilitation therapy after surgery.

After surgery, all participants experienced a significant reduction in their ability to swallow and their ability to articulate words and sentences. However, participants’ quality of life reports remained stable after their treatment. The authors speculated that this may be due to the following factors:

  • improved pain management
  • peace of mind after removal of the tumor
  • strong social support

A small 2022 study investigated tongue function and quality of life after partial glossectomy. The study included 22 people who had undergone partial glossectomy as a treatment for oral squamous cell carcinoma, some of whom had also received flap reconstruction surgery.

The study indicated that partial glossectomy caused impairments in tongue motility, which in turn caused issues with speech and swallowing.

Compared to participants who did not receive flap reconstruction, those who did had higher levels of speech and swallowing impairment. They also reported a lower quality of life due to the severity of these impairments.

The researchers, therefore, concluded that doctors must weigh the risks and potential benefits of flap reconstruction before deciding whether to include this procedure as part of a partial glossectomy.

Tongue cancer surgery may involve removing all or part of your tongue, depending on the stage of the cancer.

Partial or total glossectomy will likely lead to speech and swallowing impairments. Difficulties with swallowing can affect your ability to eat. Generally, the more of your tongue the surgeon removes, the more severe these effects will be.

But with the right aftercare, you may see improvements in your speech and swallowing. This aftercare may include rehabilitation therapy with a speech and language therapist and a dietitian.

The type of surgery you have can significantly affect your treatment outcome and quality of life. For this reason, it’s important to discuss your treatment options and aftercare with a doctor before your surgery.