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Signs of Hope: The Voice Center

Conquest - Spring 2012

New life for damaged 
vocal cords

By Sandi Stromberg

Surviving cancer is every patient’s goal. But cancer and its treatments can cause debilitating side effects that affect a person’s quality of life.

That’s why doctors and staff in MD Anderson’s Voice Center are working to restore voice to patients who have lost the ability to produce sound because of cancer or its treatments.

Michael Kupferman, M.D. (left), and Jan Lewin, Ph.D.,
perform a minimally invasive procedure to restore the 
voice of Philip Goodwin, who travels from Florida for 
treatment of his esophageal cancer.
Photo: John Everett

“What makes us distinctly human is our ability to communicate with one another verbally,” says Michael Kupferman, M.D., assistant professor in the Department of Head and Neck Surgery.

“Due to the effects of their cancers and certain treatments, patients are often left with a weak voice or severe hoarseness. They often can’t communicate on the telephone or have a conversation in a restaurant. In some situations, they may not be able to resume their occupations.”

Damage to the larynx (voice box) can occur from either the tumor or treatments, such as radiation or surgery, especially among patients with cancers that involve the thyroid, lung, esophagus, or head and neck. This is often due to injury to the nerve that controls movements of the larynx.

Back to normal communication

“Most patients will initially complain of a soft, breathy voice. They may also report coughing when they eat or drink that can put them at risk for pneumonia,” says Jan Lewin, Ph.D., professor in the Department of Head and Neck Surgery and chief of the Section of Speech Pathology and Audiology.

“This is because the vocal folds, the two little muscles within the larynx, cannot close to make sound, nor can they prevent food and liquid from falling into the airway.”

Patients may be offered minimally invasive interventions, which include a vocal fold injection that can be performed while the patient is in the clinic. This procedure provides a temporary improvement in vocal fold function. 

When the damage is permanent, patients may elect to undergo a simple surgical procedure for permanent correction.

In either case, the effects are immediate, and after only a few days of voice rest, patients can start speaking without restrictions. The results are generally excellent, and most patients report a return to normal communication and activities without difficulty.

The ability to speak and be heard ranks high on the scale when patients assess their quality of life. The Voice Center is dedicated to helping them retain or regain that important function.

Editor’s Note: At MD Anderson, there are many other programs that address a patient’s quality of life. Among them are a swallowing function laboratory, speech pathology and audiology, services that will be covered in future issues of Conquest as “Signs of Hope.”

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