Monday, October 4, 2010

Observations on being without a Voice

One is told about the side effects of a thyroidectomy but until it happens you have no real idea what to expect. Loss of voice and laryngeal nerve damage are not unusual in these cases and the reality of these two things is amazingly devastating.

Due to the size of the tumour the surgery was much more complicated than expected and took much longer. The surgeon told the OS afterwards that he expected to have to cut the left laryngeal nerve when he saw the situation and he worked on the right side first to ensure I would have one functioning nerve. When he came back to the left side he made a valiant effort and managed to avoid cutting it. However initially and for several months afterwards it didn't function at all: a frozen vocal cord as it is commonly known or vocal cord paralysis.

Our voice is our second face;
unseen, we are judged by our voices.

The reality of not having a functional voice became apparent very quickly for me. At home I managed to croak enough to be understood and fortunately, for the most part, on the telephone I was comprehensible enough. But the moment there was any ambient noise, my voice was lost.

Not being able to drive until I could turn my head, the OS was coerced into accompanying me to the supermarket on my first foray out. But he wandered off and left me throwing things into the cart. I couldn't find the pears and asked the man in the produce department where they were. He simply couldn't understand me, even after I repeated it and turned away. For the first time ,since I had been diagnosed with cancer, I cried. Not in front of him, but as I wandered off looking for the OS to ask him that we leave at once.

There is no index of character so sure as the voice.

Benjamin Disraeli


I mean I was not able to communicate. I had always known that the deaf or hard of hearing people are marginalized in social situations, but it's the very same thing for those who are virtually voiceless. I had no idea until it happened to me and it has changed my whole personality.

I'm very friendly usually, exchanging pleasantries and laughs with cashiers in stores, with strangers in the supermarket over the produce or the meat, with people I meet in the street or on the bus. But it becomes pointless now, as you have to repeat everything several times and often they still don't hear. I try to get away with saying as little as possible now in these situations and smiling a lot.

The human voice is the organ of the soul.

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

One on one, I am usually fine if the noise level is low, but put into a group situation I become invisible as I speak and no one hears me or pays attention to me. We all tend to have this very bad habit of speaking over each other but usually we can just muscle our way back into the conversation. That's gone for me, so I smile a lot and frankly become quite bored at times. No matter how interesting a conversation might be, unless you can participate fully it tends not to hold your attention.

People say to me, well if you want to say something, just rap on the table or catch our attention. That really makes me laugh, for if people all stop talking to listen to me, I feel as if I have to have something really momentous to say and how much pressure is that? I have noticed too since this happened that certain of my friends tend to monopolize the conversation., which I never noticed before. I start to tell them something and halfway through they interrupt as it reminds them of some other story and off they go. I never get to finish what I started to say, for even if I speak again, it's not loud enough to make a difference and they talk until they run out of steam.

It's four months now since this began. I'm told that permanent voice changes are rare and they won't even consider a referral to a specialist before 6 months. My voice is flat and expressionless and I have a two note range. My rather odd accent, Australian modified by living in Canada for so long, is no longer apparent and of course, as I said before, I sound like a male who is a heavy smoker or a cross between Donald Duck and Lauren Bacall.


A voice is a human gift; it should be cherished and used, to utter fully human speech as possible. Powerlessness and silence go together.Margaret Atwood

I've perused the relevant forums looking for other people's experiences with this. Some seem to have recovered their voices relatively quickly, some take a year or so. Some get their normal voice back, others have permanent changes. I've no idea what the end result will be for my voice, no one can predict for sure. I suppose if the surgery plus the subsequent treatments with radioactive iodine and external beam radiation, which I have undergone since the surgery, have cured this cancer, the voice change will be a small price to pay. Each day I wonder, will it be a good day or a bad day for my voice? Will this frustration ever end?

The voice so sweet, the words so fair,
As some soft chime had stroked the air;
And though the sound had parted thence,
Still left an echo in the sense.

Ben Jonson



Part one, part two , part three of the saga.


9 comments:

lgsquirrel said...

your voice in the blogosphere is as strong as ever. I hope you will recover your voice soon but in the meantime, we will always be here to listen to you.

Carver said...

I am so sorry that you are dealing with this. You describe so well what it must be like and I can imagine how hard it would be. I hope you will get your voice back as quickly as possible.

CherryPie said...

The does sound frustrating. It is irritating at the best of times when people insist on talking over the top of you so it must be even worse when you can't raise your voice loud enough to counteract that.

rlbates said...

Echo the above commenters. Best to you.

Sandy said...

Wow, I am so sorry that you have to deal with this. Thank goodness that through blogging your voice is heard loud and clear.

Tom Paine said...

I suspect your voice is slowly getting stronger without your noticing. I can understand that - for a naturally chatty person - it's frustrating to be denied your full vocal range and I hope you get it back soon. In the meantime, it was clearer today than I had expected. Having never heard how it usually sounds, I could have easily been fooled that you were just an Australian Bacall impersonator (despite all your years in Canada, the accent is still clearly there).

Thanks for sharing your experience here, for your company today and for your wise words of advice over a very pleasant lunch in a restaurant no first time visitor to Vancouver could have found. It was a great pleasure to meet in person someone I already knew well enough from cyberspace to know that I liked. Like others here I admire the spirit in which you have approached a trial we all fear and wish you all the best.

Voiceless Wonder said...

I lost my voice 6 1/2 years ago due to damage caused by Rheumatoid Arthritis. It was gone completely for 5 years and now, after a year and a half of low dose chemotherapy and other immune suppressing drugs, I have a voice about 50-60% of the time. It is the hardest part of my disabilities to deal with. To not be able to communicate is so frustrating. And I have learned it's a disability people "get" the least. It's nothing like when you lose your voice for a day or two from a cold. It's much more frightening. I remember it really hit me one night when one of the dogs got loose and my husband couldn't hear me calling for help. I was terrified the dog would get hit by a car and then I thought, what if there was a fire or I fell, who would hear me calling for help.

It's such a helpless feeling. And it's like your identity is gone. I hope your voice returns soon. In the mean time, know that at least one person in the blogoshpere really gets it. Hang in there!

Fred said...

Beautifully written JMB!! The whole story! Keep shining!! On a more practical note my wife used a little clip-on mic with a small speaker attached to her belt..... that really helped her climb above the ambient noise!

Fred said...

errrrrr...... Fred = Korgi btw!! x