A woman who was told her mouth ulcers were caused by growing wisdom teeth and a hectic lifestyle has had part of her tongue removed and remade with muscle from her leg.
Charlotte Webster-Salter, 27, began suffering from recurring ulcers in 2018 but put it down to working long shifts as a flight attendant and feeling “rundown”.
After several trips to the dentist and GP, Charlotte was eventually referred to a specialist at the Ear, Nose and Throat department at St Richards Hospital, Chichester, in February 2021 for a biopsy after her tongue developed painful, white patches.
Test results revealed that Charlotte had oral cancer, after a tumour was identified on her tongue.
Weeks later, she underwent a nine-hour long operation at Queen Alexandra Hospital, Portsmouth, which involved removing part of her tongue and replacing it with muscle from her leg.
Charlotte had no idea if she would be able to speak or eat normally again and spent the next two weeks with a tracheostomy – an opening in the neck with a tube inserted to help you breathe.
Despite the gruelling surgery, Charlotte stunned doctors with her speedy recovery, and was overjoyed to discover the cancer had not spread further.
She now hopes to help raise awareness about signs and symptoms of the disease.
Charlotte, a student midwife, from Petersfield, East Hampshire, said: “My tongue is now a two-tone colour – it looks like a drumstick lolly. There is even a freckle on my tongue from my leg. You hear about breast cancer and prostate cancer, but rarely mouth cancer. It’s usually older men or smokers who are diagnosed. The doctors had never treated someone as young as me. The first time I saw a poster about it was in the head and neck clinic. It’s definitely something that needs to be talked about more.”
Charlotte started feeling “rundown” and suffering from ulcers in 2018 while working as cabin crew.
She went to the dentist who suspected the ulcers were being caused by her wisdom teeth coming in.
However, when they continued to come and go for the next couple of years, she booked an appointment with the GP in 2020 to get more answers.
Charlotte 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. 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 returned to the GP who eventually referred her to the Ear Nose and Throat department at St Richards Hospital, Chichester, in February 2021.
She underwent a biopsy which involved taking a sample of tissue from her tongue for testing.
Doctors had discovered a tumour called a squamous cell carcinoma growing in her tongue and Charlotte – it was classified as a type of head and neck cancer.
At the same time, Charlotte’s mum, Sam, now 51, had battled breast cancer after being diagnosed at aged 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 – 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 was booked in for surgery at Queen Alexander Hospital, Portsmouth, on 7 June 2022.
The nine-and-a-half long operation involved cutting away part of Charlotte’s tongue – with the tumour – and replacing it with muscle from her leg thigh called a “skin flap”.
They didn’t know if the cancer had spread, so doctors also removed a lymph node from her neck for testing.
She was also fitted with a tracheostomy – an opening in the neck with a tube inserted to help her breathe – as she would struggle from the swelling.
Charlotte was supported throughout by her loving partner, Tom, 31, who she lives with.
“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 went well but Charlotte was rushed for another four-hour operation when her new tongue lost its blood supply.
Luckily, doctors were able to save it and she spent four days in ICU before being moved to the Maxillofacial unit.
The tracheostomy was removed two weeks later, and Charlotte was finally able to say her first words after 10 days.
“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 very emotional moment.”
Charlotte was thrilled to discover the cancer had not spread and she didn’t require any further treatment.
She underwent speech therapy and physiotherapy to learn how to talk, eat and even walk again while recovering from the surgery on her neck and leg.
After recovering, she started university in September 2021 and is currently studying 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 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.”