Regaining my voice after 20 years with tongue cancer

     (<a href=''>Microphone</a> image courtesy of

    (Microphone image courtesy of

    Since high school, when Leslie discovered she had a talent for public speaking, it became a part of her personality. But constant bouts with tongue cancer chipped away at that confidence. When things were particularly bad, it was public speaking that helped her find her voice and her personality again.

    I discovered my talent for writing and speaking during my junior year in high school. That was the year my parents yanked me out of public school and put into an all-girls, very elite, private school.

    I went from writing paragraphs to writing 10-page essays weekly. The other girls grumbled, but I didn’t mind at all. Back then, my only dread was the typewriter. I couldn’t write at the typewriter, so I wrote my assignments out in longhand and then typed them up when they were complete.

    By that time, the work was done — concentration, creativity, process. I was just putting icing on the cake. Luckily I had a brand-new electric typewriter with a white-out cartridge, so I didn’t need to retype entire pages.

    • WHYY thanks our sponsors — become a WHYY sponsor

    As I learned to whip those papers out with ease, I also learned to use my voice. I was the one to speak up in class. I was the one to volunteer to tutor the younger students. I was the one who signed up late one Friday afternoon when I’d heard there was to be a speech competition the next morning.

    I usually cherished my Saturday morning sleep-in. It didn’t feel like a proper weekend without it. But this speech contest sounded fun to me — something worth getting up early for.

    So I hit the library on Friday night. Even I didn’t normally do any school work on Friday nights, but I had only one night to prepare. There were three categories. I had a choice of participating in a debate, reciting a short five-minute speech from memory, or reading a long 10-minute speech or excerpt. Debate wasn’t up my alley: too much fact checking and studying. Memorization wasn’t going to work with one night to prepare. So I looked for something I could read. I settled on a Carl Sandburg poem. It was about the Holocaust — full of strong emotion. It seemed to speak to me. I placed it under the warm cover of the copy machine and put in several dimes to copy off the pages of the poem.

    I awoke the next morning to my screaming alarm clock. At breakfast, I read through the poem for the second time then dashed off to school. When it was my turn, I will admit I had a few flutters of stomach butterflies, but it was more excitement than nerves. To an audience of 50 classmates, teachers and judges, I read the poem. A few hours later, I had won second prize in the category.

    Turning point

    I’m not even sure what possessed me to compete. I was never shy, but I was, and still consider myself to be, an introvert. But after that competition, I learned that I would be a gregarious introvert for the rest of my life.

    I’d been writing with ease for months by then in my new, more challenging, school, but I’d never spoken in public before. When the first-place winner told me that she had signed up months earlier and had had all of that time to practice, I realized for the very first time how easily it came to me: the flow of words to my mind, my mouth, my heart.

    I’ve spent my life taking advantage of this one talent of mine. I’ve had jobs over the years that required some kind of writing or public speaking skill. Most were sales positions. I could sell you the air out of a paper bag if I believed it to be good honest air. I even worked for a non-profit that required me to speak in front of groups on a regular basis to drum up volunteers. I thrived.

    But something odd happened to me along the way. I got tongue cancer. Then I got it again. I got it over, and over, and over again. After having it repeatedly for 20 years, I stopped counting how many times I’ve had it.

    Chipping away

    Each time, surgeons cut out a little more of my tongue. One time the surgery included a neck dissection. Another time it included cutting the floor of my mouth. Other surgeries included work on my jaw, my tonsils, or the removal of teeth. And every time, the surgery brought more scar tissue and more soreness — and new challenges in overcoming pain, eating and speech problems.

    There was so much to adapt to. Voicemail hell takes on a whole new meaning when you have a speech impediment.

    “We’re sorry. We didn’t get that. Could you repeat that? That’s not a working extension. Good bye.”

    Worse is when I actually get a human being on the phone who assumes I’m just a nut job and just hangs up on me.

    The excitement of getting a new iPhone goes out the window when Siri doesn’t understand a word I say.

    Communication is my strength. When I’m hindered like this, it feels like I’m back in school waiting to get a grade, and my assignment comes back with a blazing red “F.” My blood pressure shoots up when the only thing I’m good at turns into the thing that I am worst at. Instead of accomplishment, I feel failure, emptiness and frustration.

    Then there are the lunch dates with girlfriends. Who cares who picks up the check? I still have to pay for our friendly chats by spending the rest of the day in silence, recovering from the pain and stress of an afternoon speaking clearly.

    With my family, though, I get some relief. They’ve been through this so often. My husband can now speak two languages: English, and “post-surgery Leslie.” My kids got me a dry-erase board so I can tell them what I want and answer their questions in silence. Rather than pick up the phone to talk, they automatically understand that texts and e-mails are my preference.

    Taking back my voice

    I’m fortunate that I’ve always been able to get my clarity of speech back. Sometimes it only takes a few weeks. Other times, it takes months.

    At various times in my life, I have participated in Toastmasters International. Some people have good singing voices, some are good with numbers, and some sparkle in sports. Public speaking always made me feel like I could take a dingy, old copper penny and make it shine. It is a skill that has become part of my very personality.

    Once, immediately after I joined my local Toastmasters group, all of my excitement was wiped away when I was stricken with another recurrence. But I was scheduled to give a speech a few weeks later, and I was determined — not only that I would take that podium, but that I would speak clearly and without impediment. After all of the silence and all of the failures, I wanted my personality back.

    When a pitcher loses his pitching arm to a broken bone, he has it put in a cast until it heals. Then he awaits the day that he can step back up on the mound and strike someone out. To not step back behind the podium and pitch my words to the crowd was unthinkable.

    So I practiced my craft. I wasn’t just preparing for a speech, I was preparing to reclaim my personality. For the first time in my life, it didn’t come so easily. I couldn’t wing it like I had in the past. I had to practice, but I delivered. I got up there and nailed it with total clarity, in speech and in purpose.

    There are no prizes given at local Toastmasters events, officially. We’re all there to learn and develop our skills. But when I left that night, I discovered that some people can earn prizes at those meetings, because I walked away with first prize pinned on my heart.

    Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

    Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal