A young woman has been left with a 25cm scar across her neck and only two thirds of a tongue after a lump she thought was caused by her braces turned out to be cancer – and now she is sharing pictures as a warning to others.
Kimberley Hattersley-Barton, 22, from Wakefield in the UK, was diagnosed with the rare childhood soft tissue cancer, rhabdomyosarcoma, when she was just 13 months old.
After several rounds of chemotherapy and radiotherapy, she fought off the disease and was given the all clear after her second birthday.
Kimberley’s childhood cancer battle left her with several long-term chronic health problems including kidney failure and cardiomyopathy, but her optimistic nature meant that she has never dwelled on her health woes.
In December 2015, Kimberley first noticed a bump on her tongue whilst she was brushing her teeth which she initially ignored as she already had a naturally bumpy tongue and was fitted with braces at the time which would cause her irritation.
“Prior to the first tongue cancer diagnosis I had braces on my teeth, I spotted the tumour when cleaning my braces and thought nothing of it,” she said.
A few days passed and she noticed that her tongue wasn’t symmetrical and the bump was now in fact a pronounced lump. Kimberley was referred to the head and neck clinic and was told the news that she had squamous cell carcinoma on her tongue which had spread to her neck lymph nodes.
She was 18.
“I was in disbelief of what I heard, I was upset and confused at what had just been said as I wasn’t aware that it [the cancer] was in my neck also,” she said.
Taken aback by her diagnosis, Kimberley had to undergo surgery in March 2016 to remove the affected area of her tongue which included a gruelling neck dissection, where all of her lymph nodes on her left side were removed.
“I had the back third of my tongue removed and reconstructed by joining the gum across to reconnect to my tongue, my speech was slightly affected by this so I worked with speech therapy,” she said.
For almost four years Kimberley’s check-ups had been clear but in April 2020, at the height of the coronavirus pandemic, her tongue became so sore that she struggled to eat soft foods. It was then she received the devastating news that her tongue cancer had returned.
With quick surgery she is hopeful no more treatment will be required.
“Once confirmed I was naturally upset but I then had to make the decision to go ahead with the operation which would happen during the peak of COVID-19.”
The most common type of head and neck cancer is squamous cell carcinoma and about nine out of 10 head and neck cancers start in squamous cells.
Kimberley isn’t sure why she has been diagnosed with tongue cancer on two separate occasions or why she developed it so young. After genetic testing, her doctors concluded that her genetics are very rare and prone to mutation.
After surgeries Kimberley has been left with ten inch scar from left to right which is formed of two separate six inch scars overlapping.
She is sharing photos of her scars as a way to inform and inspire others as people around the world struggle through difficult times in the global pandemic.
“I’ve always wanted to share my story to inspire others in any way possible,” she said.
“But now after another diagnosis I want to use the small public platform I created to hopefully bring more awareness and share information that can help people understand what cancer journeys are like.
“I want to inspire others and say whatever challenge you come across, things will always move on so you have to make the most of every moment you can and enjoy the best out of things even in difficult times.”
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