As a smoker, I always felt that I would know when it would be time to quit. Being very active in both my business and personal life I never had any worries about my health. In 35 years of being in business if I was out sick for 5 days it was a lot. I was doing a total renovation on my house—ripping down walls and ceilings—while living in the house. I figured that I was getting hoarse, because I was breathing in a lot of old dust and dirt.
That went on for several months without getting any better. A number of people would comment on it and finally I went to a doctor who told me that I had bronchitis. He prescribed medicine and asked that I come back in for a follow-up in 3 weeks. Two weeks later, I came home from the office, had dinner and sat down to watch the news. For some reason I could hardly take a breath. I live less than a mile from a hospital. So, I jumped in my car. Both of the traffic lights on the way were green, so I got there in less than 5 minutes. When I walked into the emergency room there were 4 nurses standing around and nobody was waiting to be seen. When one of the nurses looked up, she made a horrified face. I figured someone came in behind me covered in blood. I turned around to look and there was nobody there. Oh boy. That look was for me.
They instantly brought me into the ER and put an oxygen mask on me. They said that I was turning blue. After about 30 minutes, I was feeling fine and my vital signs had improved. Thinking it was just a fluke, I asked if I could go home. They advised me to stay the night so they could make sure I was okay. I had no problems that night. The next day a doctor came in and checked me out. I asked if someone could look down my throat since I had been hoarse. Another doctor came in with a scope, took a look and told me that I had a tumor on my voice box. They believed it had enlarged and cut off my ability to breathe last night. That night they operated and put in a trach, which would prevent the tumor from suffocating me.
I was told the next day that it was a large, stage 3 cancerous tumor that would have to be removed. After the doctor said this, I remember hearing a voice in my head say “don’t worry, we got this.” I felt very peaceful and had no fear at all. In fact, I felt really happy that my faith was working. Praise God.
I left the hospital several days later. Now some important work had to be done. I had to find a doctor to deal with this tumor. I did as much research as possible to educate myself. I met with three doctors who were highly regarded—1 in New Jersey and 2 in New York City. They all seemed good and specialized in what I needed but in the discussions, all three said they had trained with a [very well known ENT surgeon]. “Wow,” I wondered. “Who is this doctor and is he practicing, or a professor?” We did some more research and found him.
After the first examination and consultation in his office, I had that same “this is going to work out fine” feeling. My surgeon was very knowledgeable, professional and made me feel confident that this was the way to go.
The surgery was scheduled for the 3rd week of October. They would remove the tumor and do a TEP to make it easier for me to speak. I am an accountant specializing in tax work, so speaking was a major concern to me. I had many clients whom I’d known for decades. It made me wonder how they would react to this major change.
Let’s just get past the surgery first. The procedure went fine: three and a half hours and it was done. No lymph nodes were impacted, but my surgeon had to remove my thyroid, because the tumor was resting on it, and why take a chance. Good move. Other than not eating or being able to talk yet, I was not in pain and I was able to walk around.
I had one small set back when I developed a fistula. So I had a feeding tube and was not able to speak until the first week of December. I remember asking if they made turkey-flavored Ensure for Thanksgiving—but no dice.
I returned to work in January—just in time for tax season—while getting radiation treatments daily for 3 months. That was actually easy except for having to stay motionless for 15 minutes. In that time, my mind was actually back in my office preparing for my evening tax appointments.
You learn so much about life when it changes. The most important things are your faith, keeping a positive attitude, being around people that are positive and supportive and having people like my surgeon and his great staff to take care of any issues that may come up. Its funny, I was concerned about how I would sound when I spoke, especially to my long-time clients. Most of them said “you sound the same as you always did, just with a gravelly voice.” Before you know it, I’m back to talking taxes in a blink.
I remember about a year ago, I had my appointment and my doctor told me that my voice sounded great. I said “I think I will be at Carnegie hall in 6 months” and he said he would be in the front row. I thought “wow, this guy is the real deal.”
With most people that have had cancer, it isn’t possible to know unless they tell you. I had the type that is impossible to hide, but that gives me the opportunity to try to encourage people to know that with the right faith, attitude, medical team and support you can be even better than new.
I’ll tell you one thing about being a laryngectomee. Wherever I go, people that have spoken to me once always remember me. I had a funny experience in a supermarket when the young kid bagging—a definite video gamer—asked me if I wanted plastic or paper. I told him paper and he looked at me and said “wow mister what a great voice modulator you have.”
It’s been 5 and a half years since my surgery and every day you learn something new to make this journey easier. Things that were so difficult in the early days are now second nature. Everything is a process and takes time to master—just keep focused, have a positive attitude and a sense of humor and you will do just fine.
Sharing stories of hope. Spreading awareness.