Losing the power of speech after having the voice box removed for cancer is the daunting prospect faced by some. However, most can learn to talk again by using a different “voice”. AASMA DAY talks to Kim Winterton who says there is a real need to raise awareness and understanding of laryngectomees.
As a self confessed chatterbox, when Kim Winterton was told she had cancer near her vocal cords and needed surgery to remove her voice box, she felt crushed by the prospect of losing the ability to talk.
Asking her surgeon if there was another option, she was answered with the words: “Yes. You die.”
Kim, 72, who lives in Eccleston near Chorley recalls: “I knew then that there was no choice so I just said: ‘Well I better have it done then.’
Kim, who is married to David and has two daughters, six grandchildren and three great-grandchildren, began suffering a sore throat about five-and-a-half years ago.
She says: “My sore throat had gone on for a few months and then my voice became very raspy as though there was something grating.
“I went to see a doctor and was referred to hospital where they found something unusual and performed a biopsy.
“It turned out to be cancer lying near my vocal cords and I was told I needed surgery.
“When you get a diagnosis that you are going to lose your vocal cords, it is very difficult - especially when you are a bit of a gasbag like me.
“However, my surgeon told me he would give me a voice so I would still be able to speak so I put my faith in him.”
Kim, who was a payroller for a leisure company but is now retired, underwent the four hour surgery which resulted in her breathing through her neck.
Kim explains: “People who have had a laryngectomy are called laryngectomees and they have no vocal cords.
“We breathe through our necks and our mouth is for eating only.
“Very few people know about us and wouldn’t know how to deal with us in an emergency. We cannot have an oxygen mask put over our noses as they don’t work!
“There are different types of ‘voicing’ I use esophageal speech but the majority have a valve inserted into their stoma (neck) and have what we call a button and they press it when they want to speak.
“Some patients have no voice at all which can be very isolating.
“The way I speak is that I take a breath and then push the air up and then I open my mouth and hopefully words come out!
“It took me a long time before I was confident enough to pick up the phone and it is only in the last six months that I have been able to do this.”
Kim says a fear of the unknown has led to some stares and unkind comments from strangers.
She says: “We do sometimes get treated badly. Some people can be very unkind.
“I have had people turn away from me and ignore me completely and I speak a little better than most.
“It is just down to us being different and a lack of understanding.”
Although some laryngectomy patients lose their sense of taste and smell, Kim can taste and smell, but she admits that some foods don’t taste like they did before.
She says: “Before my surgery, I never ate carrots as I didn’t like their taste.
“But now carrots don’t taste like carrots so I eat them.
“One of the worst things for me has been that chocolate does not taste like chocolate.
“My favourite chocolate used to be Fry’s Chocolate Cream, but now it doesn’t taste anything like I remember.
“I cannot really describe what it does taste like, but it doesn’t taste like chocolate.
“However, I keep trying it in the hope that the proper taste will return!”
Kim is the secretary of the Preston and Chorley Laryngectomy Group which supports patients who undergo surgery to remove their voice box.
The group meets once a month at Vine House on Cromwell Road, Ribbleton,
Kim says: “Even though I have had such a life changing operation, my life is fine.
“I have lovely friends and lovely dogs and I used to show dogs and enjoy going to Crufts.
“I have never asked: ‘Why am I like this?’ It is something that has happened and you just have to get on with it.
“We are just normal people who talk in a different way and sound different.
“But some people get frightened by things they don’t understand.
“That is why it is important to raise awareness.”
Jokingly, Kim adds: “My husband thought he was going to get a very quiet wife after the operation.
“But he was very wrong!”
l For more details about the support group, visit: headneckcancerpreston.weebly.com/ or call Kim on: 01257 453012.