A woman whose tongue was removed after it became cancerous has had a new one made from her arm.
Joanna Smith, 58, of Clapham, Bedfordshire, first realised something was wrong when she spotted a tiny ‘ulcer’ in her mouth in October last year.
After initially being sent home from her GP with a gel, the grandmother-of-four was finally referred for a biopsy when the growth became the ‘size of a Malteser’.
Told she would have just eight months to live unless she had her tongue removed, Ms Smith underwent 15 hours of surgery, involving 29 medics, on January 10.
Doctors then made Ms Smith – who works as a cleaner – a new tongue via skin, muscle and a long vein in her left arm.
Although she has no taste buds, Ms Smith – who is cancer free – was able to talk as soon as she woke from the operation, and can eat and drink as normal.
Joanna Smith had a new tongue made from the skin, muscle and veins in her left arm after her’s became cancerous. She is pictured left after the operation, with the scar on her neck visible from where surgeons went in to remove her tumour. She is pictured right at the Bedford Hospital, where was diagnosed with tongue cancer following a biopsy
Scar shows where tissue was taken from Ms Smith’s arm. Medics initially used skin and muscle from her leg, however, this ‘turned black’ when doctors attempted to reattach it in her mouth. She describes the whole procedure as ‘really weird but shows what [doctors] can do’
Speaking of the operation, the mother-of-two said: ‘It’s a bit weird. I look at my arm and 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.’
Ms Smith – who does not smoke – went to her GP when the ‘ulcer’ in her mouth started to grow and became painful.
After initially being prescribed tablets and mouth-ulcer gel, Ms Smith was later referred to Bedford Hospital for a biopsy.
She then received the devastating diagnosis, and was scheduled in for the operation at Luton and Dunstable Hospital.
‘[The doctor] said if I didn’t have the operation I wouldn’t see next Christmas,’ Ms Smith said.
‘He said I would be lucky if I got six-to-eight more months. That was a bit of a shock.’
Ms Smith’s new tongue (pictured) has no taste buds, with her only being able to enjoy the flavour of food via a few taste buds in the roof of her mouth. Doctors kept a ‘tiny sliver’ of her first tongue so she could move the new one, but she still has to ‘think’ when she eats or talks
Opting to go under the knife, surgeons removed all but a ‘tiny sliver’ of Ms Smith’s real tongue, which they left so she would be able to move her new one. They went in via her neck.
The doctors also cut out all the glands in Ms Smith’s neck, as well as all but ten teeth, before cutting a section of skin, muscle and vein from her right leg.
The medics attempted to reattach this in the cleaner’s mouth, however, it ‘turned black’ – a sign the graft tissue has died.
While Ms Smith was unconscious, the surgeons therefore asked her family for permission to take her back into surgery and try again using flesh from her left arm.
‘I didn’t know anything about it,’ Ms Smith said.
‘But they asked my daughter and she said “anything to save my mum’s life”.
Ms Smith has only recently started eating solid food after initially existing on meal-replacement shakes. Due to her not yet having full sensation in her new tongue, she is worried she may burn herself and is avoiding hot food. She also worries she may dribble
It then took medics a further five hours to replace Ms Smith’s tongue with a circle of skin and a vein from her left arm.
The cleaner then had a third and final operation to repair damage caused by the last procedures.
‘When I woke up I was a bit disorientated but I could talk straight away,’ she said.
‘It felt like I has something strange in my mouth.’
Ms Smith spent 11 days recovering in hospital before finally being allowed to go home.
Although the operation was a success, Ms Smith claims she now has to ‘think’ about eating and talking.
‘I have to make sure I don’t bite my tongue, because I can’t feel bits of it,’ she said
‘It makes me feel like I have something in my mouth I want to take out, but I know I can’t because it’s my tongue.
‘I don’t sound exactly like I used to. I find myself sucking my mouth a lot because I don’t want to dribble.
‘I can taste everything I used to, but just on the roof of my mouth, not my tongue.’
Worried she may burn herself, Ms Smith is avoiding overly hot food and only recently started eating solids after initially existing on meal replacement shakes.
Doctors hope to be able to replace the teeth they took out once her mouth has healed.
Ms Smith was told last week she is cancer-free and does not require any chemo or radiotherapy.