What Does Lip Cancer Look Like?

January 12, 2022

lip cancer examination

When not diagnosed and properly treated, lip cancer, like other forms of skin, oral, head, and neck cancer, can pose a serious health risk. However, when caught in the early stages, lip cancer responds well to surgery and other conservative treatment options. The prognosis for many patients with lip cancer is good. According to Dr. Daniel Condie of U.S. Dermatology Partners in Plano, Sherman, and Grapevine, Texas, “When patients recognize the early warning signs of lip cancer and seek treatment before it reaches advanced stages, we can often treat the cancer before it spreads. For this reason, helping our patients learn what to look for when it comes to lip cancer and other forms of skin cancer is an essential aspect of good dermatologic care. When patients understand early warning signs, they can reach out to us at the first indication that there’s a concern, and we can evaluate and start treatment as soon as possible.” In this blog, Dr. Condie will review answers to common questions about lip cancer, including explaining what lip cancer looks like and when it’s time to schedule a consultation with your dermatologist to explore treatment options.

What Is Lip Cancer?

Lip cancer is a type of cancer that crosses categories. It is considered to be a form of skin cancer as well as a form of oral (mouth), head, and neck cancer. The majority of lip cancers are squamous cell carcinomas, which develop in the squamous cells in the middle and outer layers of skin. While anyone may develop lip cancer, individuals who have regular or prolonged sun exposure and those who use tobacco products are at significantly higher risk for this type of cancer. To minimize risk, Dr. Condie encourages patients, “Don’t neglect your lips when you’re applying sunscreen each day. Many great lip balm options have built-in sunblock, and it’s recommended that people apply these products daily even if they aren’t going to spend much time outdoors. If you smoke or use other tobacco products, you are at significantly higher risk for lip and oral cancers as well as other forms of cancer and a range of serious skin and whole-body health concerns. For this reason, I recommend the cessation of smoking and tobacco to keep my patients healthy.”

Lip Cancer Warning Signs?

According to Dr. Condie, “Skin cancer self-exams should be an essential part of your skincare routine. Approximately once a month, you should examine your whole body, including your lips, for changes that may be indicative of skin cancer. You may have heard of skin cancer warning signs referred to as the ABCDEs. That stands for Asymmetry, Border, Color, Diameter, and Evolution. Essentially, if a new or existing spot on your body looks uneven, doesn’t have a smooth border, is a different color from other spots, is very large, or changes quickly, it’s time to talk to your dermatologist.”

Knowing the ABCDEs of skin cancer and performing regular self-exams are great first steps toward the early diagnosis and treatment of lip cancer. In addition, patients should look for the following specific lip cancer warning signs:

  • A lump, bump, or raised area, more common on the lower lip
  • Pain in the lips
  • Numbness or tingling in the lips
  • Lips that bleed easily
  • Sores that don’t heal
  • Red or white-colored patches, especially if scaly or rough
  • Swelling or inflammation in the lips

What Is the Process for Diagnosing Lip Cancer?

When it comes to diagnosis, Dr. Condie says, “Unfortunately, even with regular self-exams, the early warning signs of lip cancer can be subtle, making it difficult to self-diagnose. Many people who receive a lip cancer diagnosis in the early stages receive this diagnosis during a dental appointment, from a general care physician, or during an annual professional skin exam with their dermatologist.”

In most cases, your dermatologist will notice warning signs of lip cancer when performing a regular visual examination of the skin. If a concerning spot is found, your dermatologist will often perform a biopsy by removing a small sample of skin from the affected area. The sample should then be then examined under a microscope by a dermatopathologist, a doctor who has extensive training in skin and lip cancer diagnosis. If a cancer diagnosis is confirmed, your dermatologist will help guide further evaluation and treatment. For many early lip cancers, surgery alone is sufficient treatment. If your lip cancer is more advanced and there is concern that it has spread, your dermatologist may refer you to another specialist, such as a head-and-neck surgeon, oncologist, or surgical oncologist.

What Are the Treatment Options for Lip Cancer?

After a diagnosis of lip cancer, each patient will receive a personalized treatment plan. Mohs surgery is an appropriate treatment with the highest cure rates for most cancers on the lip. This is a unique surgical excision process that involves carefully removing the cancer-affected tissue and a small amount of healthy surrounding tissue. Then, the excised tissue is examined under a microscope until the removed cells no longer show signs of cancer. Once the cancer is removed, your Mohs surgeon can often repair the area with stitches. Many areas on the lips can also be left to heal on their own after the cancer is removed.

Cryotherapy is a conservative lip cancer removal option that may be recommended for small, early tumors that only involve the top layer of the lip. Cryotherapy uses extreme cold to destroy growths on the skin’s surface. Unlike traditional surgical excision, cryotherapy offers a less invasive solution, which may mean shorter healing times for sensitive areas like the mouth.

Topical chemotherapy creams may also be an option for early tumors that only involve the top layer of the lip. These creams need to be applied regularly over a period of weeks to months to be effective.

While most lips cancers can be treated with surgery alone, your dermatologist may need to partner with other specialists (surgeons and/or oncologists) who provide advanced cancer treatment plans that may include chemotherapy and/or radiation therapy. These cancer treatments are used to destroy cancer cells throughout the body and reduce the risk for recurrence for aggressive tumors.

How Do I Get Started Working with a Dermatologist?

If you notice warning signs of lip cancer or it’s time for your annual skin exam, the U.S. Dermatology Partners team would love to hear from you. Our skilled dermatologists have experience diagnosing and treating all forms of skin cancer, including lip cancers, and we can help you understand your treatment options. To get started, simply take a few moments to complete our online scheduling request form. We look forward to hearing from you.

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