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Overcoming Depression after Laryngectomy: The Personal Experience of a Physician
January 25, 2019
By Itzhak Brook, MD, MSc, Professor of Pediatrics and Medicine, Georgetown University School of Medicine
I had been practicing pediatrics and infectious diseases for over 40 years when I was diagnosed with throat cancer in 2008. Unfortunately, my larynx had to be removed to eradicate the cancer. Becoming a laryngectomee (someone without vocal cords) was difficult and challenging. I had to learn to speak again and cope with many medical, dental, psychological and social issues. Day-to-day life was difficult. Things that I took for granted -- such as speaking, eating, and breathing -- became arduous. Depression was one of most challenging issues I faced.
After the removal of my larynx, I was overwhelmed by daily tasks and the new realities I faced. I was mourning the many losses I experienced, which included my voice, my wellbeing, and the need to accept many permanent deficits. I felt that I had to make a choice between succumbing to the creeping depression or become proactive and fight back. I chose the latter because I wanted to get better and overcome my handicaps. I also realized that my struggle will be with me for a long time.
The driving force to resist depression is my wish to set an example for my children and grandchildren that one should not give up in the face of adversity. I did not want to leave them the legacy that I had given up or hadn’t tried my best to get back to my feet.
I got involved in activities I had liked before becoming a laryngectomee and finding a purpose for my life was helpful. I returned to the hospital to practice and teach. In the process of helping others, I was also helping myself.
I gradually returned to other routines. I started with simple challenges such as reading medical literature, reviewing articles, and simply walking. I gradually became able to ride a bicycle and hike. Even though the quality of my voice is not the same as before, one of my greatest comebacks was to be able to teach and lecture again with the help of a microphone. I lecture to laryngectomee support groups as well as head and neck surgeons and other physicians about improving patient care and exhibiting more empathy and compassion. Each of these small steps made me feel better and stronger.
I started to attend the meetings of the local Laryngectomee Club. I cherished the support and advice I received from the other club members. I kept attending the club even when my needs were no longer intense and did my best to help new laryngectomees cope with their issues.
I was fortunate to be assisted by a compassionate and skillful social worker. Having a caring and competent physician and speech and language pathologist were very helpful in maintaining my sense of wellbeing.
I found ways by which I could use the setback in my life in a positive way. I wrote My Voice: A Physician's Personal Experience With Throat Cancer that captures three years of my life following the diagnosis of throat cancer as I dealt with medical and surgical treatments and adjusted to life afterward.
I also created a blog and wrote The Laryngectomee Guide to assist voiceless individuals speak again and deal with their medical, dental and psychological issues. My book and guidebook have been adopted by the American Academy of Otolaryngology, has been translated to many languages and is being read and used throughout the world.
Helping others and making a difference helps me cope with my own handicap and overcome the hardships I face.
Dr. Brook is a professor of Pediatrics at Georgetown University School of Medicine, Washington DC. He is the author of the books My Voice, A physician’s personal experience with throat cancer, The Laryngecomee Guide, and In the Sands of Sinai - A physician's Account of the Yom Kippur War. Dr. Brook is a board member of the Head and Neck Cancer Alliance. He is the recipient of the 2012 J. Conley Medical Ethics Lectureship Award by the American Academy of Otolaryngology-Head and Neck Surgery.