Cancer Patient Experience - Story Two
Surviving a Total Laryngectomy
A stage 4 laryngeal cancer diagnosis wasn't enough to slow 26-year-old Tony Aviles down. When, in 1996, persistent headaches, sore throats and dizziness led this active father of three to seek medical attention, it was found he had a large, advanced, stage 4 tumor of his vocal cords. Mr. Aviles took the news better than most people would. "I immediately asked if I could postpone my surgery for a month or so," he remembers. "I had softball games to play -my team was competing in a tournament." After his tournament, Mr. Aviles had the laryngectomy followed by radiation treatment that ultimately saved his life. He made an unusually quick recovery, likely due to his youth and good health. But he also attributes his success story to a positive attitude, zest for life and the staff at the Milton J. Dance, Jr., Head and Neck Rehabilitation Center. "If I ever win the lottery, you'd better believe that's where I'll be donating it," he exclaims.
Ella Leyh had similar praises to sing for the Dance Center. A mother of three and grandmother of six diagnosed with throat cancer five years ago, she had plenty to live for. "I truly believe God looked after me by sending me to the Dance Center. I'm a tough old bird, but I also needed a lot of help," she notes. "The support group meetings were great; it was nice to know I wasn't alone. And, when my work schedule interfered with group meeting times, Barbara Messing gave me her phone number in case I ever had questions or just needed to talk."
Barbara Messing, MA, CCC-SLP, BRS-S, Clinical Director of the Dance Center, explains that surviving a laryngectomy is much more than physical recovery from the surgery and chemotherapy or radiation treatments. "Patients have to learn an altered, new way to communicate, whether it's esophageal speech, using an artificial larynx (external vibrating device) or by using a tracheoesophageal voice prosthesis," Ms. Messing says. "Our hope is to support patients and their family members through the challenges of recovery and to celebrate their individual successes."
It was attitude, as well as sheer determination, that fueled Robert Zawadowicz's recovery from stage 4 laryngeal cancer in 2005. With two teenage daughters, he felt a strong need to set a good example. "This was an opportunity to teach my daughters about the hard times in life. I couldn't feel sorry for myself. I had to show my girls the right way to face tough situations," he says. The Dance Center provided him with the education and the tools he needed to recover from his laryngeal cancer, so that he could focus on his family.
"We prepare patients for all aspects of their treatments, from pre- and post-operative care to rehabilitation," Ms. Messing asserts. "The better informed they are about their upcoming surgeries, other cancer treatments and post-operative/treatment functional changes, the better able they are to look towards the future one day at a time. They return to living their lives with new challenges."
All three patients recall that the difficult part about their situations was the inability to speak for a while. "Not being able to talk was harder than going back to work," Mr. Zawadowicz states. Ms. Leyh and Mr. Aviles both agree that re-entering society was easier than they anticipated. "Some people were uncomfortable with my new voice, but once I explained, they didn't give it another thought," says Mr. Aviles.
According to Dorothy Gold, LCSW-C, OSW-C, Social Worker at the Dance Center, "The transition back to day-to-day living is not easy, but it is possible through adequate preparation that should include pre-operative teaching and counseling and ongoing support from family, friends, other patients and the professional health care team."
All three individuals credit their oncologists and the entire Dance Center team, from the surgeons and speech language pathologists to the social workers, with giving them a second chance at life. "Going through this life-altering experience puts things into perspective," Ms. Leyh explains. "You stop taking life for granted and you realize how much you have to live for. I'm going to see my oldest granddaughter get married, a second granddaughter graduate from high school and my grandson make his First Communion. It doesn't get any better than that."