‘I was so hungry I wanted to bury my face in KFC’: Cancer victim gets new tongue made from her leg – and the first thing she could taste was super salty fried chicken
- Cynthia Zamora, 57, from San Diego, California, learned she had tongue cancer in early 2017
- Doctors told her they would need to remove the majority of her tongue but could construct a new organ from her leg
- In April 2017, doctors removed the tumor and cut a six-by-eight centimeter patch from her thigh and fashioned it into a new tongue
- What followed for Zamora was physical therapy, chemotherapy and radiation as well as learning how to speak and eat with her tongue
- Two months ago, Zamora achieved a victory when she able to taste food – Kentucky Fried Chicken – for the first time
When Cynthia Zamora learned she had tongue cancer in early 2017, she was horrified at the prognosis.
In addition to chemotherapy and radiation, doctors would have to remove the majority of her tongue – leaving her unable to talk or eat.
But there was some hope for a solution when surgeons at University of California San Diego Health said they would be able to fashion her a new tongue using a small piece of her thigh.
Just over a year after her surgery and going through substantial rehabilitation, Zamora, now 57, not only has a new tongue, she is able to speak and chew.
Although her vocabulary is limited and she can only taste salty and sweet foods – KFC was recently the first meal she was able to fully savor – Zamora told Daily Mail Online she feels lucky to be alive and hopes to inspire others going through a similar situation.
In early 2017, Cynthia Zamora, 57 (left and right), from San Diego, California, learned she had stage IV tongue cancer. Doctors told her that to remove the tumor, they’d have to remove the majority of her tongue
However, Dr Joseph Califano (pictured), a head and neck cancer specialist, at University of California San Diego Health told her that a team of specialists would be able to create a new tongue with her using skin from her leg
In early 2017, Zamora bit her through her tongue in the middle of the night, but she wasn’t worried.
‘It started to break, because I wasn’t too concerned because it’s one of the fastest healing organs you have,’ Zamora, a certified nursing assistant, told Daily Mail Online.
She went to her doctor, who told her the wound would heal quickly. Zamora said it did start to heal but then the wound split back open.
Another trip to the doctor, provided her with antibiotics and pain pills, but now the wound wasn’t healing.
Her mouth started feeling sore, and Zamora had difficulty both chewing and speaking due to the pain.
‘One night I told my son, Ricci, to take me to the hospital because I know something’s not right,’ she said.
She was referred to Dr Joseph Califano, a head and neck cancer specialist, who told Zamora that she had a tumor through the middle of her tongue that was about 5.4 centimeters.
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‘He told me, it was stage IV tongue cancer and that I was going to need surgery to remove part of it,’ she said.
They scheduled surgery on April 25, but it wasn’t until after the date was set that Zamora learned they’d had to remove most of it.
However, there was a silver lining behind the dark cloud because he told her that a team of specialists would be able to create a new tongue with her using skin from her leg.
‘I was actually okay with it,’ Zamora said. ‘I didn’t care that I was going to have a scar.’
Dr Califano told Daily Mail Online that prior to the surgery, UCSD set Zamora up with everyone she’d need to work with after the procedure.
‘We make sure she sees dietitians, nutritionists, a speech pathologist and that she has family support because there has to be, across the board, the entire team has to function together and well for the surgery to be a success,’ Dr Califano said.
In April 2017, Zamora underwent the 12-hour procedure to receive her new organ.
In April 2017, Zamora (pictured) underwent a 12-hour procedure during which a six-by-eight centimeter patch of skin and fat was cut from her left thigh, made into a tongue shape, and connected to the base of her original tongue via a vein and artery in her neck
Zamora (left) worked with speech pathologist Dr Liza Blumenfeld at UCSD (right) to learn to exaggerate her sounds, slow down her speech, and make sounds with her new tongue that she was unable to make anymore with her vocal cords
So how does it work?
After Zamora was put to sleep, a feeding tube was inserted through her stomach.
‘With a complex surgery such as this, it’s going to be a while before the patient can use their mouth,’ Dr Califano said.
After marking where the tumor is, the lymph nodes were removed on both sides of her neck and a trach tube was inserted from the neck into her windpipe.
From there, Dr Califano got to work removing the tumor.
‘It was key to keep the base and the right side of tongue,’ he said.
‘You want to leave enough there to get function and motion and articulate and breathe and eat.’
Meanwhile, Dr Ahmed Suliman, a plastic surgeon who specializes in reconstruction after cancer treatment, built Zamora’s new tongue.
Using a method known as anterolateral thigh perforator flap, Dr Suliman cut a six-by-eight centimeter patch of skin and fat from Zamora’s left thigh.
After it was shaped into her new tongue, Dr Califano identified a vein and artery in her neck by which to connect it to before the stitches were sewn.
But surgery was just the beginning. There were still many challenges for Zamora to overcome. When she woke up, she was unable to walk, talk or eat temporarily.
‘All I could do was take it one minute at a time and it was so scary to me because I’m breathing through an apparatus in my neck,’ she said.
‘You can’t function as a human, you function as a thing that needs helps. I was dependent on feeding tube, dependent on a breathing tube.’
After a recovery period, Zamora was transferred to a rehab center where she started out in a wheelchair, gradually moving to a walker and then to waist-high railings as she rebuilt the strength of her left thigh muscles.
This was in addition to chemotherapy and radiation, as well as attending weekly speech therapy sessions to learn how to use this new piece of flesh as a tongue.
‘It was discouraging. So many times I though: “Did I make the right decision to live?”‘ she said.
‘It was the hardest battle I ever fought in my life.’
Relearning to eat took Zamora (pictured with her sons prior to her diagnosis) much longer. Her feeding tube wasn’t removed until early 2018 but, two months, ago she was able to taste again and her first meal was KFC
Despite her taste buds being more limited, Zamora (pictured) says she feels lucky to be alive and that she hopes her story can inspire others.
Zamora worked with speech pathologist Dr Liza Blumenfeld at UCSD to learn to exaggerate her sounds, slow down her speech, and make sounds with her new tongue that she was unable to make anymore with her vocal cords.
Within three months, Zamora was speaking well. But relearning to eat took much longer. Her feeding tube wasn’t removed until early 2018.
‘It was so disheartening after my surgery. I cooked a whole Thanksgiving dinner, a whole Christmas dinner, and I wasn’t able to eat one bite,’ she said.
Zamora began with a liquid diet and slowly made her way to soft foods like mashed potatoes and yogurt.
Just two months ago, she was able to eat – and taste – Kentucky Fried Chicken.
‘It was amazing. I wanted to bury my face in the KFC, I was so hungry,’ she said.
‘We celebrate every holiday by eating, every family function is centered around eating so not being able to do that that is really difficult.’
Dr Califano explained that taste function was preserved because not all the tongue was removed during her surgery.
‘Taste is mostly smell, believe it or not. Then there’s flavors, like sweet and salty, and there’s mouth feel,’ he said.
‘So lot of those tastes are not as intense as they used to be but the taste mostly comes from the sides of her mouth, the roof of her mouth, et cetera.’
Despite her taste buds being more limited, Zamora says she feels lucky to be alive and that she hopes her story can inspire others.
‘I’m in bondage to my new tongue, but I’m still going to survive,’ Zamora said.
‘Inside all of us is a survivor. I can have I an attitude of I can’t, know that I can. So don’t give up hope. There is life after this.’
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