I was told I just had a cold sore – my life was about to completely change


A WOMAN who was just thought to have a cold sore was eventually found to have a devastating disease.

Katie Drablos, 35, in fact had stage four cancer and she knew from the look on her doctors face her “life was going to change”.


Katie Drablos, pictured with her mum, was told she had a cold sore but the truth was far worseCredit: Katie Drablos
Katie developed a tiny bump at the back of her tongue which gradually became more painful


Katie developed a tiny bump at the back of her tongue which gradually became more painfulCredit: Katie Drablos

Katie, who lives in New York, initially didn’t worry too much about what felt like a tiny bump on the back of her tongue.

When it started to hurt, she thought perhaps it might be Covid, given it was the autumn of 2020.

The pain came and went, Katie told Today, and when she visited a dentist in November, she didn’t even bother mentioning it.

The choreographer said: “What was visible on the outside of my tongue was this sore that was weird looking. Because of the placement it was hard for me to see it. 

“If it had been on the tip of my tongue I’d probably would have been like, ‘Oh that doesn’t exactly look like a normal canker sore’.”

Katie thought she had a canker sore (ulcer).

But when she eventually saw a doctor for persistent pain, he diagnosed a cold sore.

The two conditions are similar, but canker sores only ever develop inside the mouth, whereas cold sores can appear on the inside and outside, and are contagious. 

Katie was prescribed antibiotics for a cold sore which made her feel better for a while.

Soon the discomfort returned and she developed a sore throat that wasn’t going away.

When she made the decision to see ear, nose and throat specialist Dr Diana Kirke at New York Eye and Ear Infirmary of Mount Sinai, things progressed fast.

Katie said: “Within one second she was like, ‘We’re going to biopsy this right now’. I thought this was more serious than I predicted.”

A biopsy revealed Katie had stage 2 tongue cancer and doctors would need to remove cancer from her tongue before reconstructing it.

Katie recalled: “I’m just sort of nodding and trying not to cry.

“She [the doctor] was trying to be comforting. But given the way she was looking at me, it was like she knew how much my life was going to change.

“The surgery affected so many parts of my body.

“The flap they used to reconstruct my tongue involved major surgery on my left arm, and then they grafted with skin from my left leg.”

During the operation in March 2021, surgeons also performed a “neck dissection” to make sure the cancer hadn’t spread.

Sadly, they found cancer in Katie’s neck, which meant she in fact had stage 4 cancer and would need radiation and chemotherapy.

All the while, Katie was trying to regain use of her tongue, which was swollen and weak, given it was now made of arm muscle instead.

Katie finished treatment in June 2021 but still struggles with eating, drinking and speaking.

However, she focuses on how far she has come in such a short period, saying: “My body is magnificent, how it can heal.”

Katie doesn’t fit the stereotypical case of someone with tongue cancer, which is a type of head and neck cancer.

The main risk factors for head and neck cancer are smoking and drinking alcohol excessively, and most cases are in people over the age of 70 years.

Katie’s doctor said in the past 10 years, there have been anecdotal reports of increasingly younger people being diagnosed with tongue cancer.

“I mean below the age of 40, unrelated to previous drinking and smoking history,” Dr Kirke said.

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Symptoms of tongue cancer include tongue pain, an ulcer that won’t go away or that is bleeding.

Dr Kirke said people delay seeing a doctor about ulcers or dismiss it as a dental problem – but anything beyond two weeks is cause for concern. 

Katie had surgery to remove the lump on her tongue and reconstruction surgery using muscle from her right arm


Katie had surgery to remove the lump on her tongue and reconstruction surgery using muscle from her right armCredit: Katie Drablos


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