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Sharon: Head and Neck Cancer Survivor

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Sharon’s difficulties breathing and swallowing brought her to see her ear, nose, and throat doctor in Waterbury. When an ultrasound found a cancerous growth on her voicebox (larynx), she was referred to Dr. Wendell Yarbrough, Chief of Otolaryngology at Yale-New Haven Hospital and Clinical Program Leader of the Head and Neck Program at Smilow Cancer Hospital.

Dr. Yarbrough determined that Sharon needed a total laryngectomy, an operation that removes a patient’s voice box. Sharon’s eight-hour operation and six days in the hospital were followed by a series of radiation and chemotherapy treatments.

“I am so happy I found Dr. Yarbrough and the wonderful staff at Smilow. He used the latest techniques for my operation – procedures that were not available at other Hospitals. And the staff at Smilow has so much expertise. They offer the newest prostheses and supplies. It has made it so much easier for me to cope and recover,” Sharon explained.

Dr. Yarbrough develops a close connection with each of his patients and follows them for the rest of their lives. “We recognize that each medical problem is significant, that seeking therapy is difficult, and that therapy can be scary, especially when surgery or specific procedures are required. We are continually amazed by the courage of our patients, and this courage reminds us that our highest priority is to provide the best patient experience throughout the entire care process,” Dr. Yarbrough said.

Sharon has had to learn to adjust to a new life after her surgery.  “When I came out of the operation,” she said,  “I was unable to speak. I used a white board and marker to communicate while I healed. Then I had to learn how to speak again with my new prosthesis. Lynn Atkins, my speech pathologist at the Speech & Swallow Center at Yale was so helpful to me. I also had to learn how to swallow, but I am back to eating solid foods.  Now I can eat anything I want.” 

Yale’s Speech & Swallow Center offers cutting-edge, team-based care in treating voice, airway, and swallowing disorders. The Center’s highest priority is improving the lives of patients with breathing, swallowing, and communications problems.

Sharon found support in several ways. “I’m lucky I have a lot of family support,” she noted. Her family, including her fiancé of 29 years, her mother, father, brother, and sister, live in the area and all have been helping her, taking turns driving her to appointments and lending a hand.  Sharon’s family also includes her granddaughter. “I have custody of her. I live for her, and I have to be well enough to take care of her,” she said.

Sharon also has found support via a group website (webwhispers.org), which not only offers its library filled with information, but also will answer individual inquiries. “They give you a password and you can ask questions via e-mail at any time, day or night. It also has been so helpful to be able to talk with people who are going through the same experience as I am.  The International Association of Laryngectomees is another great support that I’ve used. You can sign up on their website (theial.com) to receive their newsletter, that comes out four times a year. Its material is so useful,” Sharon explained.

Sharon is often asked to talk with other patients who are having similar operations. Her advice for others who are going through cancer treatment: “Hang in there. It doesn’t really get any worse, it only gets better. Be stubborn and keep fighting. And don’t be afraid to ask lots of questions.”