What to know about lip cancer

Lip cancer is a form of head and neck cancer that starts in the squamous cells of the lips and mouth. Early signs can include a sore or lump that does not heal on the lips or in the mouth.

According to the Skin Cancer Foundation (SCF), lip cancer accounts for about 0.6 percent of all cancers in the United States. The SCF also state that this type of cancer is most common in males with light skin over the age of 50 years. Common risk factors for lip cancer include prolonged sun exposure, heavy alcohol intake, and tobacco use.

Treatment options depend on the stage, size, and location of the tumor. However, lip cancer is often curable with early diagnosis and treatment.

In this article, we discuss the symptoms of lip cancer, the risk factors, and when to see a doctor. We also cover diagnosis, treatment, prevention, and outlook.

Signs and symptoms

The most common symptom of lip cancer is a sore on the lips or inside the mouth that does not heal.

Other signs and symptoms of lip cancer can include:

  • a lump on the lips or a noticeable thickening
  • painful or numb lips
  • bleeding from the lips
  • a red or white patch on the lips
  • tightness in the jaw that results from swelling

As with other types of cancer, lip cancer may not always have obvious symptoms in the early stages. People sometimes discover that they have lip cancer during a routine visit to their dentist.

The symptoms of lip cancer can be similar to those of other conditions, so it is important to see a doctor or dentist about any unexplained lesions or bleeding from the lips.

Risk factors

Anyone can get lip cancer. However, certain lifestyle and environmental factors can increase a person’s risk of developing this disease.

These factors include:

  • heavy alcohol use
  • smoking or using tobacco products
  • prolonged exposure to natural or artificial sunlight, such as from tanning beds

Other risk factors for lip cancer include:

  • being male
  • having light-colored skin
  • being over the age of 40 years
  • being infected with certain strains of the human papillomavirus (HPV), including strains 16 and 18

When to see a doctor

A person should consult a doctor or dentist about any unusual changes to their lips or mouth, particularly lumps or other lesions that do not get better on their own.

Regular visits to the dentist increase the likelihood of detecting lip and other types of oral cancer early. It is especially important for people with a higher risk of developing lip cancer to have regular dental checkups.

If a dentist suspects or discovers lip cancer, it is essential for the individual to book an appointment with their primary care provider. A doctor can fully diagnose lip cancer and work with the person to develop an appropriate treatment plan.


A doctor will typically begin a diagnosis by reviewing a person’s symptoms, medical history, and risk factors. They may ask about:

  • the family history of cancer and other diseases
  • tobacco or alcohol consumption
  • previous or current medical conditions
  • history of dental procedures

The doctor will then carry out a physical examination of the person’s mouth. Typically, they will closely inspect the lips and the inside of the mouth for lumps and abnormalities. The doctor may also check the lymph nodes in the neck for swelling.

If the doctor suspects that a person has lip cancer, they will usually carry out a biopsy. This test involves taking a small sample of skin from the affected area and examining it under a microscope for signs of cancer.

If the biopsy confirms a diagnosis of lip cancer, the doctor will then order additional tests to help determine the stage of the cancer and whether it has spread to other areas of the body. These tests may include imaging tests and an endoscopy, or the doctor may take more tissue samples.


The type of treatment for lip cancer typically depends on:

  • the stage of the cancer
  • the size and location of the tumor
  • the person’s general health

A doctor will discuss the available treatment options with the person and work closely with them to develop a suitable treatment plan.

Standard therapy for lip cancer usually involves a combination of surgery and radiation therapy. The aim of surgery is to remove the tumor and also to restore the function and appearance of the lips. Radiation therapy involves the use of high-energy beams to kill tumor cells and prevent cancer from returning.

Other treatment options for lip cancer can include:


Woman applying sunscreen to her lips to avoid lip cancer
A person can reduce their risk of developing lip cancer by wearing sun protection when outside.

It is not always possible to prevent lip cancer. However, a person can reduce their risk of developing lip cancer by:

  • using appropriate sun protection when outside, including sunscreen, lip balm with SPF protection, and a hat with a brim
  • limiting or avoiding the use of tanning beds
  • reducing alcohol intake
  • quitting tobacco products and avoiding tobacco smoke
  • having regular dental checkups

According to the SCF, the most common risk factor for lip cancer is cumulative ultraviolet (UV) light exposure, which is likely to affect people who spend a lot of time in the sun or use tanning beds.


The outlook for people with lip cancer is generally good if a doctor detects and treats the disease early.

According to the American Cancer Society (ACS), the overall 5-year relative survival rate for lip cancer is 88 percent. This figure means that people with lip cancer are 88 percent as likely as those without the condition to live for at least 5 years following diagnosis.

The ACS also state that the 5-year relative survival rate for lip cancer that has not spread beyond the lip is 92 percent, while it is 61 percent when the cancer has spread to nearby tissues or lymph nodes and 24 percent when it has spread to distant parts of the body.


Early signs of lip cancer often include a lump or sore on the lips or inside the mouth that fails to heal. Lip cancer is most common in older males with light-colored skin.

The treatment options for people with lip cancer depend on the stage and size of the tumor, but standard therapy usually involves a combination of surgery and radiation therapy. Early detection and treatment of lip cancer significantly improve a person’s outlook.

People can reduce their risk of lip cancer by using sun protection, limiting alcohol intake, and avoiding the use of tobacco products. Having regular dental checkups makes the early detection of lip cancer more likely.

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