Speech Difficulties After Stage IV Oral Cancer: Christine’s Story

As a Stage IV oral cancer survivor, I am very passionate about spreading awareness. Oral, head and neck cancers are profoundly different than other cancers in that they limit one’s ability to swallow, eat and talk. These limitations are more pronounced after surgery and radiation treatments. Sadly, at times, the limitations can be permanent.

After my 14-hour surgery on February 21, 2012, my mouth and tongue were so swollen that I could not breathe on my own, so a trach was inserted during surgery to assist in my breathing. I also could not speak. My tongue was so swollen that I could not close my mouth. I was only able to interact with people by writing on a whiteboard or dry erase board, and by texting on my cell phone. It was difficult when I needed a nurse because when I would buzz for one, they would ask what I needed and of course, I could not talk. I would buzz again and again until a nurse entered my room. The sweet nurses were more than likely becoming annoyed with me at the time.

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When I first regained the ability to speak, I sounded as if my mouth was full of marbles. Another comparison of my speech was that I sounded as if my entire mouth was shot full of Novocain. It was extremely difficult to speak coherently so people could understand me. Upon returning home after my hospital stay, I worked with a speech therapist until my insurance company stopped paying, which was about three sessions. My therapist left a sheet with exercises for me to do. Besides doing the exercises, I would try reading to my grandson and singing to songs. Believe me, the singing was not pretty, but I kept trying.

Currently, when speaking at times, I tend to mispronounce my ‘t’ and ‘s’ sounds if I talk quickly. However last May 30th, I was the keynote speaker at The Hershey Lodge in Hershey, PA for Penn State Cancer Institute’s Surviving & Thriving Cancer Survivorship Celebration, and plan on doing more speaking. I am blessed that I can talk to help raise awareness, although it may not be perfect at times. I couldn’t speak for a length of time, now you can’t get me to shut up.

Never, ever give up! Things will get better with time. Think only positive thoughts and have faith. Believe in yourself that you will conquer this bump in the road. Also, don’t live your life with “what if” cancer comes back. Live for the moment and make the most of everyday. Tomorrow is a new day so move forward. Never, ever give up. You can do this. I know you can.

I thank God and Roswell Park Comprehensive Cancer Center for my ability to speak. Spend one day with Roswell. I did and then some, because Roswell rocks!

Editor’s Note: Cancer patient outcomes and experiences may vary, even for those with the same type of cancer. An individual patient’s story should not be used as a prediction of how another patient will respond to treatment. Roswell Park is transparent about the survival rates of our patients as compared to national standards, and provides this information, when available, within the cancer type sections of this website.