What is lip cancer?

Lip cancer develops from abnormal cells that grow out of control and form lesions or tumors on the lips. Lip cancer is a type of oral cancer. It develops in thin, flat cells — called squamous cells — that line the:

  • lips
  • mouth
  • tongue
  • cheeks
  • sinuses
  • throat
  • hard and soft palates

Lip cancer and other kinds of oral cancer are types of head and neck cancers.

Certain lifestyle choices can increase your risk of developing lip cancer. These include:

  • smoking cigarettes
  • heavy alcohol use
  • excessive sun exposure
  • tanning

Dentists are typically the first to notice signs of lip cancer, often during a routine dental exam.

Lip cancer is highly curable when diagnosed early.

According to the National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research, many 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. This is because they’re more likely to have prolonged sun exposure.

Your behaviors and lifestyle heavily influence your risk for lip cancer. Approximately 40,000 people receive diagnoses of oral cancer each year. Factors that may increase your risk for lip cancer include:

  • smoking or using tobacco products (cigarettes, cigars, pipes, or chewing tobacco)
  • heavy alcohol use
  • prolonged exposure to direct sunlight (both natural and artificial, including tanning beds)
  • having light-colored skin
  • being male
  • having human papillomavirus (HPV), a sexually transmitted infection
  • 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 cancer include:

  • a sore, lesion, blister, ulcer, or lump on the mouth that doesn’t go away
  • a red or white patch on the lip
  • bleeding or pain on the lips
  • swelling of the jaw

Lip cancer may not have any symptoms. Dentists often first notice lip cancer during a routine dental exam. If you have a sore or lump on your lips, it doesn’t necessarily mean you have lip cancer, though. Discuss any symptoms with your dentist or doctor.

If you have signs or symptoms of lip cancer, see your doctor. They’ll 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 using

If lip cancer is suspected, a biopsy can confirm the diagnosis. During a biopsy, a small sample of the affected area is removed. The sample is then reviewed in a pathology laboratory under a microscope.

If the biopsy results confirm that you have lip cancer, your doctor may then perform a number of other tests to determine how far the cancer has progressed, or if it’s spread to other parts of the body.

Tests may include:

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, treatment depends on the stage of the cancer, how far it’s 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 people 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 cancer can have many 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 disfigurement of the lip and face. However, working with a speech pathologist can improve speech. Reconstructive or cosmetic surgeons can rebuild the bones and tissues of the face.

Some side effects of chemotherapy and radiation include:

  • hair loss
  • weakness and fatigue
  • poor appetite
  • nausea
  • vomiting
  • numbness in the hands and feet
  • severe anemia
  • weight loss
  • dry skin
  • sore throat
  • change in taste
  • infection
  • inflamed mucous membranes in the mouth (oral mucositis)

Lip cancer is 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 University of Texas McGovern Medical School notes that the chance of survival after treatment, without recurrence at five years, is greater than 90 percent.

If you’ve previously had lip cancer, you have an increased chance of developing a second cancer in the head, neck, or mouth. After finishing treatment for lip cancer, see your doctor for frequent checkups and follow-up visits.

Prevent lip cancer by avoiding the use of all types of tobacco, avoiding excessive alcohol use, and limiting exposure to both natural and artificial sunlight, particularly the use of tanning beds.

Many cases of lip cancer are first discovered by dentists. Because of this, it’s important to make regular dental appointments with a licensed professional, especially if you’re at an increased risk for lip cancers.