A woman who lost her tongue during her fight against cancer has had a new one made from part of her arm.
58-year-old Joanna Smith, a cleaner from Clapham, was diagnosed with tongue cancer earlier this year, being given eight months to live, unless she had it removed.
Non-smoker Joanna initially visited her GP when she spotted what she believed to be an ulcer in her mouth.
Tablets and mouth ulcer gel had no effect, so Joanna was referred to Bedford Hospital for a biopsy.
When the results came in, Joanna was given the devastating news:
He said if I didn’t have the operation I wouldn’t see next Christmas.
He said I would be lucky if I got six to eight more months. That was a bit of a shock.
Joanna opted to have the 10 hour surgery to remove the lump, which had grown to the ‘size of a Malteaser’, as well as all but a ‘tiny sliver’ of her real tongue.
The medics cut skin, muscle and a vein from Joanna’s right leg to make the mum-of-two a new tongue.
However, when it was attached it ‘turned black’ so the surgeons tried again, this time using flesh from Joanna’s left arm.
As Joanna explains, the medics sought permission from her family to go ahead with the procedure:
I didn’t know anything about it. But they asked my daughter and she said ‘anything to save my mum’s life’.
They always said that they would be able to replace my tongue with a new one, but it was nerve-racking. There was 29 people involved in the operation.
When I woke up I was a bit disorientated but I could talk straight away. It felt like I has something strange in my mouth.
I have to think before I eat now, and have to wash my mouth out. I can’t just do or eat what I used to.
Joanna spent 11 days in hospital recovering and getting used to her new tongue. She is delighted to now be cancer-free and expects to make a full recovery, without the need for chemotherapy or radiotherapy.
Joanna’s new tongue has no taste buds or feeling yet, so she has to be careful while eating to avoid biting it.
Initially sticking to liquid meals, Joanna has moved onto solids but is still avoiding food which is too hot.
During the operation medics removed all but 10 of Joanna’s teeth, so she hops when her mouth is healed these can be replaced.
Joanna is grateful for her new tongue, but does find the fact it was built from her arm bizarre concluding:
It’s a bit weird. I look at my arm and I can see where my tongue has come from. I think ‘that’s in my mouth now but yet I can talk’ and that’s really weird.
I can’t stick my tongue out and I can’t say it really feels like a tongue. It feels a bit surreal.
Before I had it done I was thinking to myself ‘how it that going to work’ but now I’ve had it I’m like ‘wow’. It’s really weird but it shows what they can do now.
We wish Joanna all the best with her recovery.
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Emily Murray is a journalist at UNILAD. She graduated from the University of Leeds with a BA in English Literature and History before studying for a Masters in Journalism at the University of Salford. Emily has previously worked for the BBC, ITV and Trinity Mirror. When Emily isn’t writing about topics including mental health and entertainment, you can find her at the cinema which is her second home.