Woman, 20, Diagnosed With Cancer After STD Fears Stopped Her Seeking Help

A young woman who was diagnosed with cancer said she delayed seeing a doctor for months because she was "embarrassed" that she might have had a sexually transmitted disease (STD).

Olivia Wallace, from Sunderland in northeastern England, had been experiencing issues with her tongue for seven months before her father eventually took her to see a doctor.

She was diagnosed with stage 4 tongue cancer, which had spread to her lymph nodes.

Some 8,001 people aged between 20 and 24 years old were diagnosed with cancer in the U.S. in 2018 (the most recent year for which data exists), according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

In the same year, 750 people aged between 20 and 24 years old died of cancer in the U.S. The number of cancer cases is much lower in this age group than in older adults.

Wallace was 20 at the time of her diagnosis, and she has since undergone various treatments, including surgery, chemotherapy and radiotherapy.

She had first noticed a lump on her tongue in 2015, but initially thought that it was a recurring ulcer.

However, when the lump continued to expand and became increasingly sensitive to the touch, to the extent that Wallace would be in pain whenever she tried to eat anything, she became convinced that she had contracted an STD, which is also known as a sexually transmitted infection (STI).

"Luckily for me, my dad had taken me to the doctors and he was in the waiting room as I thought it was an STI and I was embarrassed," Wallace told Chronicle Live.

"There is a stigma attached to young women and STIs, so that deterred me from getting checked out even though it was frightening me."

Now aged 26, Wallace is cancer free.

However, she fears that would not be the case if she had delayed medical help for any longer than she had.

"I didn't feel unwell other than this ulcer but I was probably walking around for months with stage four cancer," she added.

"If I waited another month to get checked out, I may not be here right now."

The American Cancer Society predicts that there will be around 54,000 new cases of oral cavity or oropharyngeal cancer in 2022, and that more than 11,000 people will die from the disease this year.

As with other cancers, the earlier it is diagnosed, the better the chances of survival.

The five-year relative survival rate of somebody with tongue cancer that hasn't spread beyond the tongue is 82 percent, according to the American Cancer Society.

That falls to 68 percent for people whose cancer has spread to nearby structures, and to 40 percent for those whose cancer has spread further through the body.

A woman with her tongue out
Olivia Wallace was diagnosed with tongue cancer, which had spread to her lymph nodes. Wavebreakmedia/iStock