Students red, raw and painful tongue ulcers turned out to be cancer

Mouth cancer: What are the causes and symptoms?

A university student who thought her mouth ulcers were caused by exam stress ended up having her tongue reconstructed after a cancer diagnosis. Rachel Morton, 21, underwent multiple rounds of chemotherapy and radiotherapy to treat the cancer, as well as speech therapy to re-learn how to talk. Two-thirds of her tongue was removed and replaced with a new tongue built using flesh from her thigh during a 16-hour operation.

Rachel, who lives in Edinburgh, first noticed the sores in 2019 but initially thought they were down to stress.

She had several phone consultations with a doctor, and also saw a dentist, with both prescribing antibiotics. Rachel was also given pain relief and Bonjela to try.

But by her second year of university the ulcers had become so painful that she couldn’t poke her tongue out or drink alcohol.

Rachel recalled: “At the start it was a couple of ulcers but over the course of a year they got bigger and spread, and covered the whole side of my tongue. They were really red, raw and painful.

“I went through the process of going through loads of different [medical] people and not really being seen to and at one point a doctor actually said ‘there’s actually nothing else that we can do’.”

She also experienced fatigue around this time. “I’d moved to Edinburgh and started getting really tired,” she said. “At first I didn’t really pick up on it but I’d be doing an online class and would then just fall asleep after them.

“And maybe like once a week my lips would get really red, dry, swollen and inflamed. I’d get a rash around it as well, it looked almost like I had an allergy [to something].

“By that point I started getting really bad tonsil aches, I felt like I had a sinus infection or ear infection. Everything on the left side of my face and neck felt off.”

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Eventually, following multiple GP visits, Rachel was referred for a biopsy in November 2020.

But just days later the aspiring psychiatrist was diagnosed with tongue cancer at the age of 19.

“He’d [the surgeon] never actually spoken to someone as young as me with tongue cancer,” Rachel said. “He said he’s only ever treated those over the age of 60, usually male, that have smoked and drank their entire life.

“As he was telling me that I had cancer, I don’t remember this but my mum does, he had this rash coming up as he was trying to tell us because he was just so uncomfortable. I felt sorry for him because it was a horrible situation.

“It was a really surreal experience. You go into survival mode. You think ‘ok, this is reality, this is what’s going to happen, and I’ll get through it’.”

One month after her diagnosis, Rachel had life-saving surgery during which surgeons used muscle and blood vessels from her legs to reconstruct her tongue. She also had a tracheostomy for the next four days and a feeding tube put into her stomach for roughly nine months.

Rachel had to relearn how to walk and talk, and amazingly didn’t take any time off her studies, returning to online lectures just four days later.

She underwent two rounds of chemotherapy, 30 rounds of radiotherapy and speech therapy for six months before she was given the all-clear in June 2021.

Since then Rachel has since been working with the Teenage Cancer Trust to raise awareness of the disease and along with the help of friends, has managed to fundraise £4,500 for the Little Princess Trust.

Rachel added: “The Teenage Cancer Trust has been amazing. They get to know you, you’re not a diagnosis, or a patient, you’re a friend and you talk about stuff outside of your health.

“One of my key messages for medical professionals would be for them to look beyond the textbook, we’re taught in medical school that ‘this, this and this equals this’ but that’s not how life is – everyone’s so different and no body is the same so how can we reduce that to a textbook?

“For those feeling that something’s not right, trust your intuition. If your body’s telling you something’s not right, it probably isn’t.”

According to Cancer Research UK, symptoms of tongue cancer include:

  • A red or white patch on the tongue that won’t go away
  • A sore throat that doesn’t go away
  • A sore spot (ulcer) or lump on the tongue that doesn’t go away
  • Pain when swallowing
  • Numbness in the mouth that won’t go away
  • Pain or burning feeling over the tongue
  • Problems moving your tongue or speaking
  • A lump in the neck
  • Unexplained bleeding from the tongue (that’s not caused by biting your tongue or another injury)
  • Pain in the ear (rare).

If you think you could have tongue cancer you should speak to your GP.

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