Medical Minute: Rebuilding the Tongue

Each year, about 30,000 people in the United States are diagnosed with oral cancer. Cancers of the tongue can be helped by surgery, but that involves actually removing part of the tongue. Now, doctors are improving function for patients in need.

Steve Merkle is thankful for how his life has turned out. At 23, he got some unexpected news.

"I had a little spot on my tongue, kind of a canker sore type of thing. That's when I got the bad news," shares Merkle.

That bad news was tongue cancer. Surgery removed the cancer and a piece of his tongue,

"I was doing pretty good for 13 years, and then it came back, basically in the same spot," says Merkle.

This time, more than half of his tongue was removed. Doctor Bruce Haughey says the tongue is clearly vital for speech.

"You can have a sound coming out of your voice box, but without a tongue, it's totally unintelligible," says Dr. Haughey.

But it's also critical for survival, "It stops food and liquids going down into the lungs."

Doctor Haughey reconstructs the tongue using tissue from the forearm or thigh.

"We set about sort of a series of origami-like folding techniques using two dimensions of tissue to make three dimensions of shape for a tongue-like organ," Dr. Haughey explains.

The folding technique provides better function.

"We aim for producing something that's just like the real thing," adds Dr. Haughey.

After reconstruction, 84 percent of patients eat normally and no longer need a feeding tube. Speech also improves significantly.

"Dr. Haughey did such a great job that, really, I'm kind of back to normal. I can eat everything and do everything I did before," praises Merkel.

Now, after beating cancer twice, Steve says he doesn't take anything for granted.

For more information, contact:

Teresa Bieg, R.N.
Washington University in St. Louis
St. Louis, MO
(314) 362-7514

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