After Surgery to Remove Cancer, Doctors Give Steven Brown His Voice Back

Steven Brown is a natural storyteller. He skips easily from anecdotes about growing up in Revere to good times spent with his family and friends. The jovial 64-year-old never forgets a face and is always looking for the opportunity to share a joke, but today, he no longer takes his gift for gab for granted.

Steven came to Boston Medical Center with a cancerous tumor in his neck that required a total laryngectomy. “I told Dr. Grillone, let’s get this done and just take it all out,” says Steven, recalling his conversation with Gregory Grillone, M.D., vice chairman and residency program director of BMC’s Department of Otolaryngology-Head and Neck Surgery and associate professor of otolaryngology at Boston University School of Medicine. “I was scared, but Dr. Grillone walked me through the procedure and I knew it was the best option to beat the cancer.”

Dr. Grillone successfully removed the tumor that was the source of Steven’s Stage III cancer. “We had to perform a total laryngectomy and neck dissection to get rid of the cancer,” explains Dr. Grillone. “This involved complete removal of the voice box, complete removal of the lymph nodes in the neck and reconstruction of the throat so that he could swallow normally.”

As a result of the surgery, Steven was left without a voice. “I like to be out and about, talking to people and interacting,” says Steven. “I felt like I was held captive without a voice and had the hardest time communicating with anyone.”

For years, Steven relied on an electronic artificial larynx or “electrolarynx,” a handheld device that allows the user to speak when it is placed on the throat. However, the voice he produced was no longer his own, it sounded monotone and robotic. It was also physically limiting, leaving him with only one hand free whenever he wanted to talk.

“Unfortunately they didn’t give me a third hand along with the device,” jokes Steven as he illustrates the difficulty of speaking on the phone using the electrolarynx while simultaneously trying to write.

Understanding Steven’s frustrations, Dr. Grillone and Michael Walsh, M.Ed., CCC-SPL, a speech pathologist at BMC, determined that he was a good candidate for a hands-free voice prosthesis.

Steven returned to BMC for surgery to insert a small prosthesis in his stoma (the primary airway passage for laryngectomy patients) between the trachea and the esophagus. The small device blocks the stoma and directs air from the lungs into the esophagus and out through the mouth to allow speech. The flow of air from the lungs can be regulated by an adjustable pressure valve placed over the stoma, enabling hands-free speech. The device gives users more control over their voice, enabling more range and a natural-sounding tone.

Steven was speaking within days of his surgery and the difference was remarkable. He had regained his Boston accent and the ability to whisper. He also had back the use of both hands. “I am 64 and still very active and for me this device has made all the difference in the world. My son and friends love my new voice.”

Today, Steven is cancer-free and back to telling stories. He is forever thankful to Dr. Grillone for removing the cancer, as well as the continuous support from BMC staff. “The team at BMC is just incredible – they saved my life and helped me through a difficult time,” says Steven. “I can’t thank them enough!”

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