Life was going well for Jackie Burch, from Orange County, California, 30. She met her husband Tobias, a pilot, in December 2016 and discovered a passion for aviation, after seeing he was building an aircraft in his house. Tobias offered to pay for Jackie’s flying lessons but her training was suddenly halted when she discovered something unusual on her tongue.
The 30-year-old noticed a “sore” in this area in December 2019 and went to the doctor in New Zealand, where she was living at the time.
She was told to keep an eye on it and started a course of steroid injections and pills to get rid of the lump once she returned to the United States.
However, the sore didn’t improve after following these treatments.
Jackie said: “I was like, this really hurts now. I need to have this removed.”
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She had a biopsy in April 2020 which revealed she had squamous cell carcinoma.
Jackie said: “It was crazy. It was silent and something just like completely changed.”
According to the NHS, squamous cell carcinoma is the most common type of mouth cancer, accounting for nine out of 10 cases.
Mouth cancer, also known as oral cancer, occurs when a tumour develops in a part of your mouth.
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Whether it crops up on your tongue or inside of your cheeks, the tumour can target various locations.
The health service explains that lumps in your mouth, like Jackie spotted, are one of the tell-tale signs of this type of cancer.
Other symptoms of mouth cancer to be aware of include:
- Mouth ulcers that are painful and do not heal within several weeks
- Unexplained, persistent lumps in the mouth or the neck that do not go away
- Unexplained loose teeth or sockets that do not heal after extractions
- Unexplained, persistent numbness or an odd feeling on the lip or tongue
- Sometimes, white or red patches on the lining of the mouth or tongue
- Changes in speech, such as a lisp.
“See a GP or dentist if these symptoms do not get better within three weeks, particularly if you drink or smoke,” the NHS advises.
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Jackie then underwent surgery to remove the growth in November 2020, and spent a week with a tracheostomy – an opening in the neck with a tube inserted to help her breathe.
Two months later, the growth, unfortunately, returned, prompting the woman to push for two further surgeries in January 2021 in order to get “the best possible chance to live cancer-free”.
Jackie, who is now based in Lucerne, Switzerland, said: “It was terrifying mentally and physically to go through it.
“When the growth started coming back on my tongue again, I got really scared. It was tough. More emotionally than anything else.
“My tongue is tethered. My voice is different. My speech is different.”
Despite her ordeal, Jackie still learned how to fly and finished her training, landing a pilot’s licence.
She loves to fly a light aircraft, built by her husband, which helps her feel liberated in spite of her cancer experience.
“My tongue or my smile is crooked. But the most important thing is that I’m doing exactly what I want to do in my life,” she said.
Jackie is now in remission but has been told there is a chance her cancer could return.
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