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Your Voice Matters: A look at how voice disorders can affect the people we love

In honor of World Voice Day, University Hospitals is offering a free webinar explaining the latest advancements in voice box surgery and access to a new documentary.
Credit: Cynthia Apthorpe Selker

CLEVELAND — It's one of our abilities we rarely think about, until it doesn’t work.

Take a second to think about all the things your voice can do. We use it to express emotion, to sing, to communicate. It is part of our identity, and a functioning voice is critical for quality of life. 

Now, imagine if you lost it. Permanently.

That's what happened to Matt Selker.  And no, he didn't lose it from smoking.

"I've never smoked a day in my life, this could happen to anybody," Matt said. 

Matt had an aggressive thyroid cancer and to save his life, he needed to have a full laryngectomy or voice box removal. 

University Hospitals is bringing voice awareness to the forefront by explaining reasons some, like Matt, may lose their voice box permanently. They include:    

  • Laryngeal cancer
  • Thyroid cancer
  • ALS
  • Trauma to throat/larynx
  • Smoking related diseases

So how does one get back the ability to speak?

"We have something called tracheoesophageal puncture which is basically a fancy piece of plastic that has a valve that can move and as you occlude the air coming out of your neck, which is where you breath from, it pushes air into the esophagus causing it to vibrate," says Dr. Scott Howard, Director of the Voice, Airway and Swallowing Center, UH Cleveland Medical Center.

 Placement is done in the office while the patient is awake. 

"Ten minutes after we finish it, they're already starting to voice," Dr. Howard said. 

Last Saturday was World Voice Day, a moment set aside to appreciate more than just the sound of our voices. The National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders estimates about 7.5 million Americans have trouble using their voices.

Such disorders involve problems with pitch, loudness, and quality; then there are those who lose their voice boxes due to cancer, disease, and trauma. Thanks to medical innovation, many are now able to speak after having a laryngectomy, a procedure which leaves survivors breathing through a surgically created hole in the front of their neck and speaking through a voice prosthesis situated between the trachea and the esophagus.

On Thursday, April 14, University Hospitals' ENT Institute and Seidman Cancer Center hosted a unique virtual program that will brought together patients who have undergone life-changing surgeries on their voice boxes with UH surgeons. 

During the hour-long event, the surgeons provided personal insights on the laryngectomy procedure and rehabilitation of the voice. UH laryngectomy patients and film director Bill Brummel — himself a laryngectomy patient — will discuss what it is like living with a laryngectomy.

An Emmy-nominated and Peabody Award-winning documentarian, Brummel lost his voice box in 2016 after long-term radiation for tonsil cancer created irreversible scarring of his larynx. "Can You Hear My Voice?" showcases members of a London-based choir, the Shout at Cancer choir, who have all undergone this procedure to cure cancer of the voice box.

There's still time to watch the webinar and access the documentary. 

UH World Voice Day Webinar:

Register for the film:

Meanwhile, there are some things you can do to take care of your voice:

  • Drink plenty of water
  • Quit smoking
  • Don't yell or force your voice if it feels weak
  • Get relief for acid reflux
  • Listen to your voice and seek help if you're having difficulty speaking or swallowing
  • Avoid carbonated beverages
  • Avoid the urge to cough or clear your throat
  • Give your voice a rest
  • If you're suffering from temporary hoarseness that lasts longer than two or three weeks and is not improving, seek medical help. Especially if you do not smoke or have cold-like symptoms.
  • As a side note, school teachers have the highest rate of voice problems, with an average of 60% saying they have had such issue