A MUM’S battle with tongue cancer has left her with a hairy tongue, after a third of the organ was removed and rebuilt with skin from her leg.
The skin on Annabel Lovick's tongue behaves in the same way as though it were still on her calf.
But the hardest part of the 48-year-old mum's ordeal is that she struggles to lick her lips, kiss, or swallow like she used to after the life-changing operation.
The drastic ten-hour surgery was the only option to treat Annabel's stage two tongue cancer, diagnosed in January 2020.
Over a year later her speech is normal, although she slurs when tired, and she is waiting to have fake teeth inserted to help her eat with more ease.
The single mum of two sons, Harrison 16, and Harvey, 14, said: "Initially my tongue would tire very quickly; speaking, eating and swallowing would become hard, especially at the end of the day.
"Even now, if I talk too quickly, words still come out a little different and there is no way I could lick ice cream.
"Another really weird thing is that because it came from my leg it actually does have hair on it.
“My only sadness is that I can't kiss properly. It's surprising how important this is.”
Annabel, a life coach from Bromley, south London, received the blow diagnosis after discovering a small ulcer on the back left side of her tongue.
Her GP said not to worry but it became more painful and tests revealed the tumour.
She said: "It wasn't terribly uncomfortable or painful but in my opinion was just unusual as I'd never had ulcers before and it had been there for over six weeks.
“My doctor said it was absolutely fine and not to worry about it because I wasn't the type of person at risk of getting tongue cancer.”
However, two months later the ulcer was still there, and during a visit to the dentist, Annabel was immediately referred to hospital.
In January 2020, the mum was told that she had stage two tongue cancer – a type of mouth cancer that comes under the umbrella term "cancers of the head and neck".
Around 8,300 people are diagnosed with mouth cancer each year in the UK, which is about one in every 50 cancers.
Only one in eight cases occur in people younger than 50, like Annabel.
Annabel said: "I was shocked at the potential damage there would be to my voice, eating, speaking because you have no idea how much your tongue does!
“I cried and I was apprehensive but I think it was scarier for everyone around me.”
Annabel was told she would have a third of her tongue removed, and the left side of her neck dissected to remove her lymph nodes – which the cancer could spread to.
She said: "One of my main worries was how I was going to be able to speak again.
"I told my sons and they asked lots of questions. One of them asked me if I was going to die and I told him 'of course not'.”
The mum had the surgery in February 2020 at Guy’s Hospital, London.
Doctors also took out three of her back teeth to ensure she didn't accidentally bite her new tongue.
By this point, Annabel was in a new relationship with boyfriend, Daryl, who she met in 2018 after divorcing her husband of 14 years in 2015.
Annabel said: "It was slightly emotional when I said goodbye to Daryl, knowing that the next time I saw him things might be different but I actually felt quite calm and just wanted to get it done.
“They reconstructed my tongue using muscle and skin from my calf, and the associated blood vessels were then reconnected to the blood vessels in my mouth and neck.”
Tongue cancer: The facts
Tongue cancer is a type of mouth cancer.
And mouth cancer comes under the umbrella term "cancers of the head and neck".
The symptoms of mouth cancer include:
- mouth ulcers that are painful and do not heal within several weeks
- unexplained, persistent lumps in the mouth or the neck that do not go away
- unexplained loose teeth or sockets that do not heal after extractions
- unexplained, persistent numbness or an odd feeling on the lip or tongue
- sometimes, white or red patches on the lining of the mouth or tongue These can be early signs of cancer, so they should also be checked
- changes in speech, such as a lisp
Smoking, drinking alcohol and infection with HPV are risk factors for mouth cancer.
Mouth cancer is considered rare in the UK, but is the sixth most common cancer globally.
Around 8,300 people are diagnosed with mouth cancer each year in the UK – one in 50 cases of cancer overall.
Treatment for the disease includes surgery to remove cancerous cells, radiotherapy and chemotherapy.
If mouth cancer is diagnosed early, a complete cure is often possible in up to 90 per cent of cases using surgery alone.
If the cancer is larger, there's still a good chance of a cure with a combination of treatments.
Annabel had to have a tube down her windpipe to breathe, called a tracheostomy, drains in her neck and leg, catheters, feeding tubes, ventilation and a doppler in her neck to monitor the blood supply to the new tongue.
She said: "Once I was out of ICU and a little bit more aware of what was going on I found the restrictions of all the tubes quite alarming.
"I could barely move and I was virtually doing nothing for myself, I don't think I had quite understood how vulnerable I was going to feel.
“On about the second or third day I remember hugging Daryl and crying because my situation felt so depressing, uncomfortable and unfair.”
Annabel spent a fortnight in hospital following the operatio, and the first 48 hours were the hardest.
She said: "I couldn't lift my head, move, talk, or swallow and I had copious amounts of dribble that just came out my mouth that I couldn't control.
"I couldn't shut my mouth, I had massive swelling of my whole jaw and my head felt like it was about to fall off my neck.
“I just felt so totally useless, I was dribbling excessively, totally mute, really swollen and looked horrific.”
The operation was a success and one year later, Annabel feels lucky her speech was not impaired as drastically as it could have been.
But the mum has had to get used to a new way of life that is vastly different to a few years ago when she was in good health and married to her sons’ father.
She wasn't only diagnosed with tongue cancer, but a rare medical condition called diabetes insipidus (DI) within the same year.
The DI, that is unrelated to her tongue cancer and was diagnosed ten months prior, affects just one in every 25,000 people.
Despite its name, it's not related to diabetes but symptoms include excessive urination, with Annabel going to the bathroom every half hour and constantly feeling thirsty.
The condition forced Annabel to give up her former job as an operations manager for a sales and marketing company.
She said: "I was shocked that something could come about so suddenly overnight and my health had always been really good. My life changed completely.”
During her challenging couple of years, Annabel tried to stay positive and relied on her family and partner for support.
She said: "We’ve been through a lot of change, all thanks to me, but Daryl has been great and was a real rock during that time.
"My sons also did a good job of looking after themselves.
"During my recovery, we went on some short dog walks with their help and they made me cups of tea.
“I think they liked being involved this way.”
Annabel is now a qualified life coach and Neurolinguistics Practitioner – she hopes her journey will help others who are going through a tough time.
She is also writing a fictional book about her divorce, which she will be self-publishing this year.
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