Lip cancer is a common yet frequently overlooked form of cancer that affects the skin of the lips. Frequent sun exposure involving the lips, genetics, and family history can increase a person’s risk of developing lip cancer. As with most forms of cancer, early diagnosis and treatment improve the likelihood of a successful outcome for the patient.
Symptoms of Lip Cancer
The symptoms of lip cancer are often subtle and may include:
- Pain or persistent bleeding affecting the lip
- White or red patches on the lips
- Persistent lumps or blister-like sores on the mouth
Lip cancers often occur on the bottom lip since it receives the most sun exposure. The cancer is often mistaken for a cold sore or a similar type lesion. In many cases, a doctor or dentist will notice the abnormal spot during a routine visit, which will prompt a referral to an ear, nose and throat specialist. The ENT specialist will perform additional testing, which usually includes a biopsy, to confirm the diagnosis.
Lip Cancer Risk Factors
Lip cancer is more prevalent in fair-skinned individuals than those with a darker skin tone. Other risk factors include:
- Frequent alcohol or tobacco use
- Excessive sun exposure
- A history of oral cancer
- Previous treatment for lip cancer
- Being positive for human papillomavirus (HPV)
Men are 10 times more likely than women to develop cancer of the lip. This is due to the fact that males are statistically more likely than females to use tobacco and engage in outdoor activities and occupations.
Lip Cancer Treatment
Lip cancer tumors often spread, so a comprehensive examination of the mouth and other areas that could be affected is an essential first step of treatment. The most common treatments for lip cancer include surgery, oral chemotherapy, and radiation therapy. The goal of these treatments is to preserve as much of the lip functionality as possible.
Surgical Treatment of Lip Cancer
Surgery is most often used when the more conservative options are not feasible due to the location or size of the tumor or when the tumor has not responded to other treatments. A technique known as Mohs microscopic surgery is commonly used to treat lip cancers. The procedure is performed using local anesthesia and provides the doctor with the precise control needed to treat tumors located on or near the lips. Lymph nodes in the neck may also need to be removed if the cancer has spread beyond the lips. Depending on the size of the tumor, additional surgery may be required to reconstruct the affected lip.
Preventing Lip Cancer
Since lip cancer is closely linked to sun exposure, you can reduce your risk by using lip products that contain sunscreen. Anyone noticing a change in the skin on their lips or unusual bumps or lesions on the lips should consult their doctor as soon as possible. The available treatments for lip cancer are highly successful when started early.