Woman has part of her tongue removed and remade from leg after cancer diagnosis
A woman who was diagnosed with mouth cancer ended up needing life-saving surgery to take out part of her tongue.
The missing part was replaced with muscle from her leg, and now she describes her tongue as looking like a ‘drumstick lolly’.
Charlotte Webster-Salter, 27, first started getting recurring mouth ulcers in 2018, but figured it must have been because she was feeling ‘run down’ due to her long shifts working as a flight attendant.
But the ulcers came and went for the next couple of years, with the dentist suspecting they were being caused by her wisdom teeth coming in.
After her tongue developed sore, white patches, and she took several trips to the dentist and GP, Charlotte was eventually referred to a specialist.
She said: ‘The ulcers always appeared in one area – which I thought was odd.
‘I kept dismissing it, in my mind I thought it was just stress or feeling run down.
Warning: Graphic images ahead.
‘I even thought it was from being hungover or eating spicy food was aggravating it.
‘I had my teeth straightened and had fillings, but nothing helped.’
Charlotte underwent a biopsy, and doctors realised the real problem was a cancerous tumour called a squamous cell carcinoma.
This news came as a particularly crushing blow for Charlotte and her family as her mum Sam, now 51, had endured breast cancer after being diagnosed at age 49.
Sam had undergone a mastectomy, chemotherapy and radiotherapy and was in remission when Charlotte revealed her diagnosis.
Charlotte said: ‘I just laughed when they told me – I was so shocked I didn’t know how to react.
‘Cancer was the furthest thing from my mind.
‘The hardest thing was telling my mum – so I waited to do it in person.
‘She had been through so much, and it broke my heart to tell her that her daughter had cancer too.’
Charlotte underwent a nine-and-a-half-hour operation to cut away the affected part of her tongue and replace it with muscle from her thigh called a ‘skin flap’.
They weren’t sure whether or not the cancer had spread, so doctors removed a lymph node from her neck to be tested.
The swelling would cause her to struggle to breathe, so Charlotte was also fitted with a tracheostomy – an opening in the neck with a tube inserted to help her breathe.
Through this terrifying time, Charlotte was supported by her partner Tom.
‘The night before the operation, Tom and I went for a curry – it was amazing,’ she said.
‘I didn’t know when I’d next be able to eat or even speak.
‘No one really knew what the outcome would be – losing the ability to speak was the scariest thing for me.’
The surgery itself went well, but Charlotte needed to be rushed into another four-hour operation when her new tongue lost blood supply.
Thankfully, doctors were able to save it, and her trach was removed two weeks later.
After ten days, she was able to say her first words since the surgery.
‘I said “hello” and everyone was in floods of tears,’ she said.
‘The moment I took my first sip of water it was honestly the best thing ever.
‘I surprised my mum and Tom by speaking to them when they arrived – it was a very emotional moment.’
To everyone’s relief, Charlotte was told that the cancer hadn’t spread, and she wouldn’t be needing to undergo any further treatment.
She just needed speech and physiotherapy to learn how to talk, eat and walk again with her new tongue and altered leg.
Now, Charlotte’s studying at university to become a midwife.
‘The hospital staff and surgeons were incredible – I can’t thank them enough,’ she said.
‘When I couldn’t talk, the nurse would just sit and talk to me for hours.
‘It was the little things, but they were so supportive.
‘In some ways, I feel exceptionally lucky because it was caught in time.
‘I’m a rare case because I’m so young – it was a mystery to the doctors.
‘But I think it’s so important to look out for the symptoms at any age.
‘There needs to be more awareness out there.
‘If just one person reads my story and recognises the symptoms, I’ll be happy.’
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