Throat cancer robbed Marybeth of her voice for nine months

Could you imagine spending 9 months without a voice? Marybeth did

By Tamer Ghanem, M.D.

Throat cancer patient, Marybeth shares her experience
of living without her voice for nearly a year.

For many people, cancer can mean loss. There are the things your body loses, like energy and appetite. But you also may lose intangible things, like relationship dynamics.

Think about the last conversation you had with a loved one. Maybe it was a happy moment that left you laughing. Maybe it was a serious, meaningful discussion. We need our voice to have conversations. Not having our voice can rob us of meaningful conversations.

One of our throat cancer patients, Marybeth, lived without her voice for nearly a year. I’ve invited Marybeth to share her story of losing her voice, adapting, and working hard to speak again in her own voice here.

Marybeth’s story

Marybeth with husband and Dr. Ghanem.

My struggle with throat cancer began in July 2010. I have always had a husky voice, but I got worried when I noticed it was becoming hoarser. My ENT specialist ordered a biopsy on my larynx. The results showed that I had stage four throat cancer in my supraglottis, which is above the vocal cords and part of the larynx -- the organ that lets you speak.

This was my worst nightmare. I’ve been an O.R. surgical technician for 34 years -- how was I going to work? And I’ve always been quite the "talker" outside of work, too (you can just ask my husband). The thought of losing my voice was devastating.

My doctor referred me to Tamer Ghanem, M.D., a larynx cancer specialist at Henry Ford. Despite all my experiences in the O.R., walking into my appointment made my knees weak with fear. Fortunately, Dr. Ghanem and his team understood my fears, and helped to ease them.

They took time to fully explain my options, which included a total laryngectomy (surgical removal of my larynx). Or, I could try chemotherapy and radiation treatment. I made the decision to do chemo and radiation – I wasn’t ready to lose my voice box. Dr. Ghanem started me on chemotherapy right away

Complications with my treatment

I finished chemo in November 2010, but by January, I was having trouble breathing. I suffered several upper respiratory infections and had to get an emergency tracheotomy to help me breathe.

But the trach didn’t fix the problem. I continued getting infections and developed other health issues, so I went back to see Dr. Ghanem. He told me I needed the total laryngectomy or I would continue to have problems with my upper respiratory system, and it would only get worse.

On August 23, 2011, I spoke the last words I’d speak in nearly a year to my husband and son as I was wheeled to the operating room. The entire staff in the OR were outstanding and sympathetic that I was losing my voice. They had fully prepared me for what the surgery would entail, but I still was shocked when I woke up in ICU. I looked in a mirror and saw the hole in my neck for the first time. I thought, "Oh my Lord! What have I done?"

I spent nine months without the ability to speak. I had to learn to text message, and I used dry erase boards and handwritten notes to communicate with family and friends. It was hard to hold onto the hope that someday I could go back to the way things were.

Prosthesis day

But time heals, and each 90-minute trip from my home in Saginaw to Henry Ford reinforced that I was headed in the right direction. Earlier in the process, Dr. Ghanem had made a tracheoesophageal puncture in my throat to eventually give me a voicing prosthesis. Finally, prosthesis day arrived! I was more than ready to have my first try at speech.

I quickly found out it’s not as easy as simply using my throat muscles to form sounds. After the procedure, I had to learn how to speak again using the prosthesis. My speech pathologists were wonderful and worked with me relentlessly.

The first words out of my mouth were to my husband. I said jokingly, "I bet you wish I didn't have my voice back!" Unlike me, he’s very quiet, and those nine months were quite the adjustment for him. But now, I could really, truly talk, and I was elated.

Between surgeries, biopsies, CAT scans, and lab work, my trips to Henry Ford were too numerous to count. But every time I came down, it felt like coming home. In November 2015, I saw Dr. Ghanem to review the results of my check-up scans. He told me that I was not only cancer free, I was cancer cured! As I hugged him, tears of joy flowed down my cheeks. Miracles happen -- I know because I was blessed with one.

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