Doctors make new tongue for man from the skin of his arm
This man had to undergo gruelling surgery for 14 hours that saw doctors remove cancerous tissue from his tongue only to replace it with skin from his arm that still had hair on it.
Surgeons at the Royal Derby Hospital had to cut into the jaw of David Billings, 48, and use skin tissue from his arm to rebuild his tongue.
It’s been a gruelling 17 months for David. His condition was diagnosed three weeks before he went under the knife and just one week after he was made redundant.
He also needed a second operation to reshape the tongue which still has hair on it after the graft was taken from his arm.
David said: “Being told I had cancer was mind-blowing and a real low point for me. I had no idea when they found this ulcer in my mouth that this was what it would be.
“Coming after I had been made redundant, it was all a bit too much.”
David first realised something was wrong back in October 2013 when he started struggling to swallow and went to see his GP.
After a second doctor’s appointment, he was referred to the Royal Derby Hospital where specialists discovered an ulcer on the right-hand side of his tongue and confirmed it was cancer after a biopsy.
David said: “I’d had to go back to the GP because it got to the point where I wasn’t only struggling to eat, I couldn’t even drink properly.
“It was still a huge shock when I heard the news.”
The week before, David had been made redundant from digger manufacturer JCB, where he had worked for about a year as a welder and fabricator.
He said: “It was all so overwhelming. My life and everything was ticking along nicely and the next thing I knew I’d lost my job and needed to have a major operation.”
David had the procedure to remove the lump and rebuild his tongue on November 13, 2013.
He said: “I had to have a stomach tube fitted first and then go through the main procedure.
“They had to cut through the jawbone and get my face wide open to get to the ulcer then they had to remove some lymph nodes in my neck too, just to be safe in case the cancer had spread.”
David spent nine days in hospital after his operation, returning now only for check-ups and once for the smaller procedure to reshape his tongue.
He said: “Usually, people have to go on chemotherapy or radiotherapy after the operation and, during this, the skin tissue used to rebuild the tongue shrinks in size.
“Because I didn’t need either, it meant I later needed this smaller operation to have the bit of skin trimmed.
“My tongue’s absolutely fine. I had to have speech therapy after the procedure but it’s not had any long term impact on my speech or my eating or drinking.”
David continued to use a feeding tube and rely on liquid foods until his first proper meal on Christmas Day 2013.
By March 2014, he was offered his old job back at JCB and life is well and truly on the up.
He said: “JCB actually took me back having originally laid me off because of a lack of work.
“It was the best feeling in the world when, two weeks after coming through the operation, the consultant told me the cancer was completely removed and I didn’t even need radiotherapy or chemotherapy.”
Now David is preparing to run the London Marathon and is hoping to raise more than £3,000 for cancer research.
He said: “I was not fit or well at all when I was watching the London Marathon last year but I thought how much I’d love to do it.
“I’ve never done anything like it before so, when I started feeling better, I decided to start training and now I’m about to take part in this experience of a lifetime.
“If I can get over the finish line, whatever time I do it in, it will be absolutely brilliant.”