Cancer of the Lip

Cancer of the lip occurs when cells on your lip become abnormal and start to grow out of control. Most of the time, the cancer is on the lower lip. It usually starts in very thin, flat cells (squamous cells) that cover the surface of your lips. Cancer cells can spread and form a mass of cells called a tumor. The cancer may spread deeper into the lip, or it may spread to other areas of the body (metastasize).


The exact cause of cancer of the lip is not known. However, some risk factors make this more likely:

  • Use of tobacco products, including cigarettes, pipes, cigars, smokeless (chewing) tobacco, and snuff. This is the number one risk factor of cancer of the lip.

  • Male gender.

  • Age of 50 years or older.

  • Frequent exposure to sunlight or imitation sunlight, such as light in a tanning bed.

  • Frequent use of alcohol.

  • Human papillomavirus (HPV) infection.

  • Poor oral hygiene (not brushing or flossing your teeth regularly).


  • A lump or sore on the lip that does not heal. This is the most common symptom.

  • Bleeding from your lip.

  • An open sore (ulcer) or scab on the lip.

  • Pain in your lip.

  • Numbness of your lip.

  • Drooling when you drink.

  • A lump on your neck.


To diagnose lip cancer, your caregiver may perform the following exams:

  • A physical exam of your mouth, throat, and neck for a sore or lump.

  • Removal and exam of a small number of cells (biopsy) from your lip or a lump on your neck. These cells are checked under a microscope for cancerous formations.

  • Imaging exams, such as X-rays of your mouth and neck. The images can show if there is an abnormal mass.

If you do have cancer, your caregiver will stage your cancer. Staging provides an idea of how advanced your cancer is. The stage of your cancer will depend on how much your cancer has grown and if it has metastasized. The meaning of the stage depends on the type of cancer. For lip cancer:

  • Stage I means the cancer is the size of a peanut or smaller. It has not metastasized.

  • Stage II means the cancer is larger than a peanut, but not larger than a walnut. It has not metastasized.

  • Stage III means the cancer has grown larger than a walnut. It may have spread to a lymph node or lymph gland on the same side of your neck as the cancer. (Lymph is a fluid that carries white blood cells all over your body. White blood cells fight infection.)

  • Stage IV means the cancer has spread to nearby areas such as the jawbone and skin of the chin and face. It may have spread heavily into your lymph glands.


Treatment for lip cancer can vary. It will depend on the stage of your cancer and your overall health. Treatment options may include:

  • Radiation therapy. This uses waves of nuclear energy to kill cancer cells on your lip. It may be used for stage I and stage II cancers.

  • Surgery to remove the cancer cells. Surgery done for stage I and stage II lip cancer will not change the appearance and function of your lip very much. Surgery done for stage III or stage IV cancer will change the appearance and function of your lip.

  • A combination of surgery, radiation, and drugs that kill cancer cells (chemotherapy). This may be used for stage III and stage IV cancers.


  • Your lip hurts or is numb.

  • The area of the cancer seems to change.


  • Your pain gets worse.

  • You have bleeding from your lip or mouth.

  • Your lip, mouth, or neck swells.

  • You have difficulty swallowing.

  • You have difficulty breathing.

  • You have a fever.