'Don't do it': Georgia man talks about how chewing tobacco led him to lose half his tongue

Justin Smith first felt the bump on his tongue last spring.

"It was the size of a penny, maybe not quite the size of a penny," Smith remembers.

He told his wife he might have bitten his tongue.

But, the bump was not healing.

"He was like, ‘Heather, this is growing, and I don’t know what it is,’" Heather Smith says. "It grew really big."

Heather wanted to text a photo of the lesion to her mom, who is a nurse, but Justin wanted to wait, to see if it would heal on his own.

"Finally, after he had lost like 30 pounds, I want to say, he finally let me send a picture of it to her," his wife says. "She was, like, ‘You need to go get that checked out.’"

Justin was diagnosed with oral cancer, specifically tongue cancer.

"I was kind of shocked," he says.

However, he wasn’t entirely surprised, because, Justin says, he’d been chewing tobacco since he was a teenager.

"Every day, most of the day," Smith says. "I’m 31 and have been doing it since I was 15, 16-years-old."

The National Cancer Institute says at least 28 chemicals in chewing tobacco are known to cause cancer, it and smokeless tobacco been linked to oral, esophageal, and pancreatic cancers.

"I knew it might be a problem down the road, when I was young, but I didn’t think about it," Justin Smith says. "I just keep on, and kept on, and kept on doing it until this happened."

At Cancer Treatment Centers of America Atlanta in Newnan, now City of Hope Atlanta, Justin began 30 rounds of radiation, to get him ready for surgery to remove the mass from his tongue.

City of Hope speech-language pathologist Jennifer Cargile met with Justin as he began his treatment to explain to him how removing part of his tongue might affect his ability to speak, swallow and taste.

"Justin’s unique because he’s young," Cargile says. "You’ve got this 30-year-old, who is young in his marriage, working and living life. And, then I’m coming and telling you, like, "Hey, there may be some potential impacts to your speech, where you don’t sound like you do now, and you may not eat like you do now. And that can be hard to hear that."

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Justin Smith started chewing tobacco as a young teenager. Now 31, he is adjusting to life after losing half his tongue to oral cancer. (Supplied)

The surgery was complicated.

"They pretty much removed half of my tongue," Smith says. "Then, they took skin off my arm, and a vein off my arm, to reconstruct my tongue. Then, of course, they took the skin off my leg to reconstruct my arm."

The left side of his tongue no longer has feeling or taste.

After the surgery, Smith spent months working with Cargile, trying to learn how to speak with his new tongue. "Even to this day, there’s still certain things I can’t pronounce because, you know, my tongue doesn’t actually move like it did before," Smith says.

He can no longer eat spicy foods or drink carbonated sodas or alcohol.

Still, Justin Smith’s medical scans are clear, and his speech is normalizing.

Smith hopes people will hear his story and think twice about chewing tobacco.

"Don’t do it," he says. "I don’t know any other way to put it, but don’t do it."