Lip Cancer: Causes, Symptoms and Treatment

Lip cancer is cancer that develops from the skin cells of the lip. It is influenced by various factors, such as smoking and the sun. We explain everything you need to know.
Lip Cancer: Causes, Symptoms and Treatment
Leonardo Biolatto

Written and verified by the doctor Leonardo Biolatto.

Last update: 05 October, 2022

Although it may seem impossible, lip cancer does exist. It’s a type of malignant neoplasm that develops from the skin cells of the lip. It’s included within the term oral cancer, which is the type that affects the different parts of the oral cavity.

One of the risk factors is, logically, tobacco. As with other skin cancers, sun exposure can also be a trigger for the process.

Although lip cancer is treatable, it can significantly affect the appearance and quality of life. That’s why early diagnosis is essential. In this article, we’ll explain everything you should know about the pathology and how to identify it.

What is lip cancer?

Cancer is a process in which a mutation occurs in the DNA of the cells. This mutation causes the cells to begin to proliferate uncontrollably. Thus, they invade and damage the surrounding tissues.

Lip cancer, as we have pointed out, is included within the area of oral cancer. That is, those malignant tumors that develop inside in relation to the oral cavity. According to the National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research, it has an incidence of 53,000 cases per year in the United States. It mainly affects people over 40 years of age.

This pathology, as pointed out by the Spanish Association of Head and Neck Cancer, is formed in the skin cells of the lip. Specifically, in cells called squamous. They’re thin, flattened, and line the inside of the anatomical structure. Most cases affect the lower lip.

Symptoms of lip cancer

Lip cancer can be very aggressive. In addition, the problem is that it often requires surgery in order to be treated. This type of approach affects appearance and self-esteem. Therefore, knowing how to identify the early symptoms is crucial.

At first, it can manifest itself in different ways. It can be a kind of sore on the lip that doesn’t heal over time. It also appears as a white spot, or even a kind of lump or mass.

As explained by Mayo Clinic specialists, some people experience tingling, numbness, or pain around the area. This results in problems chewing or even speaking normally. In certain cases, the lesion bleeds. If the cancer spreads there may be swelling of the jaw and sore throat.

A woman protecting her lips.
The use of sun protection on the lips shouldn’t be underestimated, especially in snowy environments.

Causes and risk factors

Cancer arises from mutations in the DNA. The specific cause of lip cancer isn’t known. However, experts recognize a number of factors that increase the risk of mutations.

For example, one of the most relevant ones is smoking. Smoke from any type of cigarette contains numerous substances that are harmful to the body. Continuous exposure of the lips is a determining factor.

As it’s a type of cancer that arises in skin cells, there are risk factors that are shared with dermal neoplasms. For example, sun exposure. In fact, this is a fundamental fact, since applying protection on the lips can reduce the incidence of the problem.

The Arturo Lopez Perez Foundation explains that another risk factor is the human papillomavirus. Likewise, frequent infections in the area due to poor oral hygiene or family history can have an influence.

How is lip cancer diagnosed?

The diagnosis of lip cancer requires a series of tests to determine the exact type of neoplasm, the extension, and other characteristics. First of all, it’s essential to perform a good physical examination. In addition, the physician must know if any accompanying symptoms have appeared.

When a lesion is observed in this area and there’s suspicion of malignancy, the ideal thing is to perform a biopsy. This is a test that consists of removing part of this tissue. The sample is observed under a microscope to check for any alterations in the cells.

Exfoliative cytology is also useful. It’s less invasive than biopsy. A sample is obtained from the oral cavity or lip by rubbing a brush or cotton swab over the area. These cells are also examined in the laboratory.

Other complementary tests are needed to determine the extent of lip cancer. The most commonly used are magnetic resonance imaging, computed tomography, and positron emission tomography.

Available treatment

Lip cancer can be treated. However, the approach varies depending on the location and extent of the tumor. Surgery is one of the most commonly used options, especially when it’s localized and can be removed without residual damage.

The problem is that, if the cancer is large, a large part of the lip is removed. This has an obvious aesthetic impact, but also causes functional problems. For this reason, reconstructive surgery is often required to repair the defect.

Radiotherapy is another option. Specifically, as explained in a study published in Medicina y Patología Oral, brachytherapy is used. This allows higher doses of radiation to be used in a shorter time and in a more direct way.

Chemotherapy can also be useful, especially if the cancer has spread to other parts of the body. It’s usually combined with radiation therapy. At present, for some neoplasms, there are specific drugs depending on the type of cancer present. In this way, cancer cells can be killed without causing excessive damage to healthy cells. Immunotherapy is another similar therapeutic option. This is based on stimulating the immune system to fight the cancer more effectively.

A woman in radiotherapy.
Radiotherapy and chemotherapy are usually reserved for cases with a malignant spread of the tumor to other regions of the body.

Can lip cancer be prevented?

As we mentioned earlier, the exact causes of lip cancer are not known. However, many factors that increase the risk of lip cancer have been identified. Prevention is therefore based on avoiding these triggers.

One of the first basic measures is to stop smoking. Similarly, try to reduce sun exposure, especially at peak hours. If you’re going to sunbathe or be very exposed, it is essential to apply sunscreen on your lips. For example, when you go skiing or snowboarding, as sunlight is reflected.

Finally, be careful with tanning beds. These are techniques that use ultraviolet radiation, which is associated with an increased risk of skin lesions.

Remember that lip cancer can be very aggressive

Lip cancer can be difficult to detect early. Many people are unaware that growths occur in this area, and, for this reason, it isn’t often suspected.

However, early diagnosis is essential for prompt treatment. If successful, the approach may not be too aggressive and may allow the lip to be preserved. Otherwise, it will have serious aesthetic and functional repercussions.

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