Woman who was worried the lump on her tongue was an STI had cancer

Woman who was too embarrassed to have a lump on her tongue checked because she thought it was an STI reveals her shock at discovering it was cancer

  • EXCLUSIVE: Olivia Wallace was aged 20 when she was diagnosed with cancer
  • The council support worker from Sunderland noticed a growth on her tongue
  • She was wrongly worried that it was an STI so avoided the doctors for months 

A woman who thought the lump on her tongue was a sexually transmitted infection (STI) before being diagnosed with cancer has revealed how she almost lost her life after refusing to go to the doctors for seven months due to her embarrassment. 

Olivia Wallace, 24, a council support worker from Sunderland, was just 20-years-old when she was diagnosed with Stage 4 cancer of the tongue, and lymph nodes.

She first noticed an ulcer-type growth on her tongue at the age of 19 – when she weighed 23 stone and ‘loved going out drinking’ – but was concerned that it was an STI.

Due to her embarrassment, Olivia avoided getting it checked for seven months – until the growth was larger and painful. Doctors then diagnosed her with tongue cancer and said if she’d waited any longer it would’ve spread to her whole body.

Thankfully, after radiotherapy, chemotherapy and an operation to remove the tumour, Olivia is now cancer free – and has lost an astounding 11 stone as she adopts a healthier lifestyle.


Olivia Wallace (pictured recently), 24, a council support worker from Sunderland, was just 20-years-old when she was diagnosed with Stage 4 cancer of the tongue, and lymph nodes

She first noticed an ulcer-type growth on her tongue at the age of 19 – when she weighed 23 stone and ‘loved going out drinking’ – but was concerned that it was an STI. Pictured, Olivia during her cancer treatment

Due to her embarrassment, Olivia (pictured with her boyfriend) avoided getting it checked for seven months – until the growth was larger and painful

Olivia has shared her story in the hopes of encouraging other people to get any symptoms of cancer checked by a medical expert straight away.

Recalling the moment she first noticed the growth, she said: ‘At 19, I was like most teenage girls and loved going out drinking with my friends. I weighed 23 stone and didn’t have a healthy lifestyle, but I was enjoying my teenage years.

‘I noticed something on my tongue and thought it was a reoccurring ulcer. It wasn’t particularly painful to start with. 

‘It started getting bigger and I was worried that it might be an STI. It put me off going to the doctors for about seven months.

‘I eventually went to see a doctor aged 20 when it continued to grow and became painful. The doctor sent me for a biopsy, but I still wasn’t too concerned.’


Doctors then diagnosed Olivia (pictured during her teenage years) with tongue cancer and said if she’d waited any longer it would’ve spread to her whole body

Thankfully, after radiotherapy, chemotherapy and an operation to remove the tumour, Olivia (pictured left, with a friend) is now cancer free – and has lost an astounding 11 stone as she adopts a healthier lifestyle

Olivia (pictured during treatment) has shared her story in the hopes of encouraging other people to get any symptoms of cancer checked by a medical expert straight away

Olivia’s father, who raised her and her brother, was there for support when the teenager received her results. 

‘I didn’t want him to come in as I still thought it might be an STI,’ admitted Olivia. ‘When I walked into a room and saw a lot of doctors and nurses waiting for me, I said, “You need to get my dad if it’s something bad”.

WHAT IS TONGUE CANCER?

Tongue cancer is a form of head and neck cancer.

Although the exact number of sufferers is unclear, around 12,000 people are diagnosed with a form of head and neck cancer every year in the UK.

And 51,540 new patients are diagnosed annually in the US. 

Cancer can develop in the oral tongue – the front two-thirds that is visible when you poke your tongue out at someone – which is classed as mouth cancer.

Or it can start in the base of the tongue near the throat, which is a form of oropharyngeal cancer.

Symptoms may include:

  • Red or white patch that does not go away
  • Persistent sore throat
  • Ulcer or lump on the tongue that does not ease
  • Pain when swallowing
  • Numbness in the mouth
  • Unexplained bleeding
  • Ear pain (this is rare)

Most head and neck cancers have no clear cause, however, smoking, excessive drinking and the HPV virus are risk factors.

Early cancer (when the growth is smaller than 4cm and contained in the tongue) can be removed via surgery. 

Radiotherapy may also be required.

Advanced cancer may require surgery to remove the entire tongue, as well as chemo and/or radiotherapy. 

Source: Cancer Research UK 

‘I was shocked when they said that I had tongue cancer and that it had spread to my lymph nodes. I worked in palliative care and looked after people dying of cancer, but I didn’t see me getting it, especially not throat cancer. 

‘I had no idea it was even a possibility to get throat cancer as a young adult’, Olivia confessed, recalling: ‘I asked if I was going to die and asked what I needed to do to stay alive.’

The council support worker was told she had Stage 4 cancer, with doctors warning the situation could’ve been much worse had she left it any longer before being checked. 

‘If I had left it much longer to see the doctor I might not be here today as I was told that it would have soon spread across my body,’ said Olivia.

Olivia was given the option to have treatment on an adult ward or on the Teenage Cancer Trust unit at The Freeman Hospital, and decided to go with the latter after hearing she’d receive her own room and be treated around other young people. 

‘I had my radiotherapy mask fitted a few days later before starting 30 sessions of radiotherapy and six rounds of chemotherapy,’ recalled Olivia. ‘I also needed an operation to get the last bit of the tumour out.’

The young adult shared the horrific ordeal she went through during treatment, suffering from sickness, fatigue and dangerous levels of weight loss.

She said: ‘During some of my treatment I had to be fed through a nasal gastric tube and I suffered from sickness and fatigue. 

‘I couldn’t keep anything down and because my weight dropped so quickly I was close to paralysis. I was in intensive care, then in the Teenage Cancer Trust unit for nearly a month and a half.

Olivia, whose weight dropped from 23 stone to 16 stone, said it was comforting to be around other people her own aged who had also been diagnosed with cancer. 

‘Initially I felt so let down and thought “why me?” but I saw other young people had been affected too,’ she explained.

‘Meeting them and talking about our common worries made me feel less isolated too. I’d only told about three friends that I was ill as I didn’t want to put a downer on things for people. 

‘It also helped that there was no set visiting hours [on my ward] and that I had my own room so my dad and my brother could visit or stay over whenever they wanted.’

Recalling the moment she first noticed the growth, Olivia (pictured with her boyfriend) said: ‘At 19, I was like most teenage girls and loved going out drinking with my friends. I weighed 23 stone and didn’t have a healthy lifestyle, but I was enjoying my teenage years’


‘I noticed something on my tongue and thought it was a reoccurring ulcer. It wasn’t particularly painful to start with. It started getting bigger and I was worried that it might be an STI. It put me off going to the doctors for about seven months,’ admitted Olivia (pictured left, during treatment). Pictured right: Olivia’s scar following surgery

Olivia finished her treatment in May 2016 and thankfully recovered well, and now boasts a healthier lifestyle after her cancer diagnosis ‘put things in perspective’.  

‘I stopped going out drinking as much and started going to the gym,’ revealed Olivia. ‘I met my partner Michael there on the first day and he has been an amazing support.

‘I’m now about 12 stone and healthier than ever. I’m scared the cancer might come back, but I can’t let that rule my life.’ 

Olivia has now thrown herself into fundraising for Teenage Cancer Trust by undertaking virtual tasks – including it’s 2800 squat challenge – so that other young people can benefit from the support she had.  

After eventually getting the growth checked, the council support worker (pictured during her treatment)  was told she had Stage 4 cancer, with doctors warning the situation could’ve been much worse had she left it any longer before being checked

Olivia (pictured right, with a friend) finished her treatment in May 2016 and thankfully recovered well, and now boasts a healthier lifestyle after her cancer diagnosis ‘put things in perspective’

She is also supporting the charity’s #BestToCheck campaign, which is raising awareness of the five main symptoms of cancer in young people.

It is also urging them, despite the challenges of the pandemic or potential embarrassment, to contact their GP with any concerns. 

‘I would encourage people to get anything that worries them checked,’ said Olivia. 

‘Sometimes you feel ashamed about going out and getting with people, but doctors are professionals who are there to help and they could save your life if it turns out to be something like cancer. If not, it’s a weight off your mind.’

The five main warning signs of cancer in young people

Cancer is the leading cause of death from disease in 13 to 24-year-olds but with early diagnosis, lives can be saved and the risk of developing other complications is reduced, says Teenage Cancer Trust. 

Through #BestToCheck, Teenage Cancer Trust is urging all young people to look out for:

  • lumps, bumps or swellings
  • unexplained tiredness
  • mole changes
  • persistent pain
  • significant weight change

Dr Louise Soanes, Director of Services at Teenage Cancer Trust, said: ‘Cancer is thankfully rare in 13 to 24-year-olds, accounting for just 1 per cent of all cancer diagnosis. 

‘However, because cancer is less common in young people, they often have to visit their doctor up to three times before they are referred to a specialist.

‘Coronavirus doesn’t stop people getting cancer. Look out for lumps, bumps or swellings, unexplained tiredness, mole changes, persistent pain and significant weight change. If you are worried, contact your GP as soon as possible. Early diagnosis can save lives.’

Find out more about #BestToCheck and the signs and symptoms of cancer: www.teenagecancertrust.org/signs

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