Lip cancer is a type of head and neck cancer that begins when the cells that make up the lip grow out of control and form lesions or tumors. It is the most common cancer of the mouth.
Lip cancer usually develops in the thin, flat cells called squamous cells that line the lips and other areas of the mouth. Lip cancer from squamous cells is referred to as squamous cell carcinoma. Melanoma, which is more aggressive than squamous cell carcinoma, can also develop on the lips. Learn more about melanoma treatment.
Using tobacco products, regularly drinking too much alcohol, and spending prolonged periods of time in the sun can increase your chances of developing lip cancer. Dentists are typically the first to notice signs of lip cancer, often during a routine dental exam.
Common symptoms of lip cancer include the following:
- a sore on the lip that does not heal
- a lump on or thickening of the lips
- bleeding, pain, or numbness in the lip
Lip Cancer Risk Factors & Prevention
Lip cancer can affect anyone. Most cases are linked to tobacco use, heavy alcohol consumption, and prolonged exposure to ultraviolet light.
Other risk factors for lip cancer include the following:
- having a fair complexion or light-colored skin
- being male
- infection with human papillomavirus (HPV), especially strains 16 and 18
- being over age 40
The best ways to prevent lip cancer are to limit your alcohol consumption and to avoid all forms of tobacco, prolonged periods of time in natural sunlight, and tanning beds.
Many lip cancers are first discovered during routine dental exams, so it’s important to see your dentist regularly. This is especially true if you’re at an increased risk for lip cancer.
Lip Cancer Treatment
The goals in the treatment of lip cancer are to:
- cure the cancer
- preserve your appearance and the function of your lips
- prevent the cancer from coming back
The extent and depth of the cancer guides your plan of care. Surgery is the most common treatment for lip cancer. If the cancer is more advanced, radiation, chemotherapy, or both may be used to shrink the tumor before or after surgery to reduce the risk of the cancer coming back.
People who have surgery to remove large lip cancers may require cosmetic surgery, as well as help from experts trained in rehabilitation for speech, chewing, and swallowing.
For early-stage cancers, a surgeon removes the cancerous tissue and a very small area of healthy tissue surrounding the cancer (called a margin). The incision is closed with sutures. The sutures inside the mouth and on the lip will dissolve. Non-dissolvable sutures are used on the skin.
Micrographic surgery (also called Mohs’ surgery) can work well for lip cancer. This type of surgery involves removing the cancer in thin slices.
Your care team looks at each slice under a microscope before taking another slice. They stop when they find a slice free of cancer.
Examining every slice means the doctor can remove the minimum possible amount of tissue. This approach can help us preserve the shape of your lips and minimize the risk of speech problems.
Radiation therapy for cancer of the lips involves aiming high-energy beams of particles at the tumor. When the particles reach the tumor, they can destroy cancer cells by damaging their DNA.
The radiation therapy team at Memorial Sloan Kettering is highly experienced in caring for people with lip cancer. They work closely with other members of your care team, and will customize a treatment plan so precise that it factors in the size and shape of your tumor to the millimeter. Their goal is not only to eliminate tumor cells but also to prevent the side effects of treatment by keeping the healthy cells in your mouth safe.