Rebecca Patterson 38 from Rushcliffe, has undergone groundbreaking surgery to replace her tongue with arm tissue after battling cancer. She was diagnosed with tongue cancer in April 2018, shortly after getting engaged. Mrs Patterson, a learning support assistant, had a sore spot on her tongue and a white patch in her mouth for around eight years which never went away. She was initially diagnosed with oral thrush but she was in so much pain she could barely speak or eat. She then had a biopsy and received the devastating call from a nurse.
Mrs Patterson said “You can never prepare yourself for hearing the words” ”it’s cancer”
“I sat in the consultant’s room trying to process what was happening thinking am I going to die? Will I lose my tongue? How will life ever be normal again?”
“My world had shattered into a million pieces. I remember saying to the consultant “I can’t have cancer, my life with my fiancé is just beginning”
I wanted answers to all these questions but didn’t want to hear them. I felt so overwhelmed with different emotions. After the diagnosis, Mrs Patterson underwent 11 and a half hours of surgery at the Queen’s Medical Centre. Surgeons removed the right side of her tongue and then removed the skin and an artery from her left arm to build her a new tongue.
The team of doctors also removed the right lymph nodes in her neck and two back teeth so the tongue would fit.
Mrs Patterson added “I woke to find my arm bandaged, two drains coming out of my neck, a tracheostomy and a feeding tube”
After being discharged from hospital, Mrs Patterson struggled to get her life back to normal, and had to relearn how to swallow and eat again. She said “Meal times were hard because I had to eat pureed food, I was breathless, I couldn’t shower easily because of my scars and I needed help to go to the toilet. I wanted to feel like ‘me’ again”
Mrs Patterson persevered and just a year after her operation she can eat almost anything she wants. She said “I returned to work just 5 months after my operation! I work in a secondary school as a Lead Learning Support Assistant, supporting special needs students. This was a huge hurdle to cross”
“The thought of entering the busy, intense environment of work again was very daunting. I had to adapt my role as I am unable to work full time now, but I still manage to work 3 days and I am coping well”
“My tongue does tire easily which can make communicating (a big part of my job) difficult, and so my duties are more office based at the moment” To help assist with her recovery, Mrs Patterson’s Macmillan nurse referred her to the Clinical Psychology Cancer Service based at King’s Mill Hospital to help with emotional support, where she met Macmillan Clinical Psychologist, Dr Sanchia Biswas.
Mrs Patterson said “The cancer returning was always at the forefront of my mind, it was my biggest fear”
“Sanchia played a huge part in helping me recover. Therapy might not be for everyone, but for me it has really helped me identify triggers to my panic and how to allow my unhelpful thoughts to come and go”
If you need emotional support or just someone to talk to, you can also call the Macmillan Support Line on 0808 808 00 00 7 days a week.