Woman’s Canker Sore Was Actually Tongue Cancer That Spread to Her Neck

  • Katie Drablos was diagnosed with stage 4 cancer in April 2021.
  • A specialist removed a spot of tongue cancer and found lesions that had spread to her neck.
  • The 35-year-old is recovering now, a year after getting radiation and having her tongue reconstructed.

When she felt a twinge of pain towards the back of her tongue in fall 2020, Katie Drablos didn’t think much of it, the 35-year-old told TODAY.

She said she ignored what she believed was a canker sore on the back-left side of her tongue, like many people would. At first, the spot only hurt sometimes when she ate. But by January 2021, Drablos was in near-constant pain, and she decided to seek medical care.

If anything, Drablos thought the sore might be a symptom of COVID-19, she told the outlet more than a year later. At the time, people were reporting various odd rashes, like swollen “COVID toes,” that may or may not have been connected to the virus.

However, she didn’t expect that the tongue lesion would lead her to a stage 4 cancer diagnosis, requiring intensive surgery and radiation.

A spot of cancer on the back of her tongue

Drablos told TODAY she was prescribed


antibiotics

when she first visited urgent care for the sore on her tongue. The medicine made her feel a little better, she said, but the pain soon returned in her throat.

“What was visible on the outside of my tongue was this sore that was weird looking,” she told the outlet. “Because of the placement it was hard for me to see it. If it had been on the tip of my tongue, I’d probably would have been like, ‘Oh that doesn’t exactly look like a normal canker sore.'”

When Diana Kirke, an otolaryngologist at New York Eye and Ear Infirmary of Mount Sinai, saw the lesion, she immediately recommended a biopsy. The test confirmed her suspicion: the sore was tongue cancer

Typically, men around age 60 and up are most at-risk for oral cancers, especially if they have a history of drinking and smoking. But Kirke told TODAY that, in her firsthand experience, she’s seen more people under the age of 40 developing oral cancers in the past decade.

Research to understand this possible shift is underway, but in the meantime, Kirke told the outlet that signs of tongue cancer include:

  • Persistent tongue pain
  • An ulcer that lasts more than two to four weeks
  • Bleeding from the ulcer

Doctors reconstructed her tongue using muscles from her arm

On March 24, 2021, doctors removed the lesion on Drablos’ tongue, but they found more cancer during the surgery.

Drablos said her surgeons opened up her neck during the procedure to be sure they could reach any deeply embedded tongue lesions. They discovered the cancer had spread to her neck, meaning it was stage 4 and would require further treatment.

On top of recovering from the surgery—in which doctors reconstructed her tongue using a muscle from her left arm, which was then grafted with skin from her left leg—Drablos had to prepare to undergo chemotherapy and radiation.

“I was just trying to get myself mentally prepared for treatment,” she told TODAY. “My tongue definitely freaked me out, the look and the appearance of it.”

The radiation left burns on her neck, Drablos said, but she’s been improving since finishing treatment in June 2021. She needed occupational therapy to relearn how to use her tongue, which still doesn’t work quite like it did before.

But overall, Drablos said she is in awe of her recovery.

“My body is magnificent, how it can heal,” she told TODAY. “I’ll feel really sad about some of the losses but then also incredibly grateful and with a deeper sense of gratitude than I ever had pre-cancer.”

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