Madrid, July 5, 2021 – The cancer that affects the lips is a malignant tumor on the mucosa and semi-mucosa of the lip, what we call the vermilion. It is a relatively common tumor, affecting 0.8 people per 100,000 inhabitants1, and is more common in men over 50 years of age. Although it is true that initially this type of tumor is usually localized, there is a high risk of metastasis to the lymph nodes if it is not diagnosed in time.
Depending on the size of the tumor and when it is diagnosed, survival ranges from 95% in the initial stage, and 45% if there is already metastasis to the lymph nodes. For that reason, it is important to be alert to any symptom that might arouse suspicion of a tumor. Because this tumor is located in a highly visible area, it is usually easy to detect, since “first a small erosion or wound appears that does not heal over a period of weeks and, later, a nodule or hard mass forms in and below the vermilion”, warns Dr. Alberto Conde de Taboada, head of the Dermatology Service at MD Anderson Cancer Center Madrid.
Sun and smoking - multiplier effect of lip cancer
As Dr. Conde Taboada explains, the factors involved in lip cancer are usually the sun and smoking. The lips are perhaps the most sensitive area of our face, and even more so in summer, so the doctor insists that it is vital to use sun protection. "There are lipsticks and lip balms with protection factors for when we are going to be exposed to the sun". The vast majority of tumors appear on the lower lip because that is where the sun hits the most and "they are typical in people who spend a lot of time in the sun, like farmers, sailors, surfers, etc.".
Furthermore, smoking in any form - cigarettes, cigars, pipes, chewing tobacco, among others, is also a major risk factor, and "the combination of these two factors, sun and smoking, have a multiplying effect," he warns.
So, stopping smoking, using sunscreen with a protection factor of at least 30, even on cloudy days, avoiding the sun during the middle of the day, and not using tanning beds, are recommendations that can help us avoid lip cancer.
Treatment based on tumor stage
As for the treatment of lip cancer, it depends on the stage of the tumor. If it is a low risk tumor, surgery is usually curative and, in principle, this approach would suffice, followed by periodic check-ups and the right protective measures to prevent it from recurring.
On the other hand, if there are risk factors, like the size of the tumor or if nerves or blood vessels are affected, the tumor is usually treated with surgery2 and then, radiotherapy sessions as recommended in each case.
Hoaxes or false myths about lip cancer
It is true that there are always certain hoaxes or false myths about cancer, and lip cancer is not an exception. Having thinner or thicker lips has nothing to do with how this type of tumor is treated, since "the size of the lip will not determine the therapeutic approach", clarifies the doctor.
Likewise, the hoax about lipstick containing a certain amount of lead, which can cause lip cancer, "was a recurring theme for years and was finally proven to be false”.
1. Mehta NK et al. JAMA Otolaryngol Head Neck Surg. 2021 May 13;e210760.
2. Conde Taboada A, et al.Karapandzic Flap for the Reconstruction of Defects Following Resection of Squamous Cell Carcinoma of the Lower Lip. Skinmed 2019 Sep 1;17(5):349-350.