Brenda Spriggs, MD, MPH, MBA
Lip cancer is the most common type of cancer that affects the mouth. This disease occurs most frequently in people who use tobacco or spend a lot of time in the sun, without using lip protection. If recognized early, the cure rate for lip cancer can be as high as 90 percent. See you doctor right away if you have symptoms of lip cancer.
Lip cancer usually begins in the squamous cells--thin flat skin cells--and spreads into deeper areas of the lips as the cancer grows. An early sign may be an irritated area that looks like chapped lips. Patients who smoke, use alcohol, use mouthwash containing alcohol or who are exposed to sunlight for prolonged periods of time should be particularly suspicious of an irritated area on the upper or lower lip.
A sore on the lip that does not heal after one to two weeks may be an early sign of cancer. The sore may be numb or painful, may bleed easily or excessively, or may appear as crusty patches on the lip. Individuals should examine their mouths and lips for unusual-appearing lesions every month and report these symptoms to their health care providers.
A lump or thickening on the lip that does not go away after one to two weeks should be examined by your doctor. The lump or thickening may be numb or painful. Benign or nonmalignant tumors may have a similar appearance -- biopsy or other testing may be required to make the diagnosis.
Pain or Numbness
Lip cancer may first appear as pain or numbness on the lip without any visible signs of a tumor. Pain elsewhere in the oral cavity, including the jaw, gums, lining of the mouth or tongue, may be a sign that the lip cancer has spread. Pain and swelling in the lymph nodes of the jaw or neck is a serious indication of metastasis or spread of the cancer. As a general rule, lip cancer that has spread to the lymph nodes or nearby structures is considered stage III or stage IV, depending on the extent of metastasis. These advanced stages require more invasive treatment than stages I and II, which do not involve other structures of the head or neck.