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Head and neck cancer patients find hope, joy, and optimism through support group

Heck and Neck Cancer.jpg
Posted at 8:33 AM, Dec 23, 2019
and last updated 2019-12-23 11:21:16-05

INDIANAPOLIS — They’re getting their voices back, in more ways than one.

Every year, roughly 3,500 people in the U.S. go through a total laryngectomy surgery.

That’s when doctors remove a patient’s voice box after a head or neck cancer diagnosis.

It results in a major physical change, and it can have lasting impacts on one’s overall quality of life.

Melvin Keith, who underwent a laryngectomy earlier this year, currently uses what is a called a “boogie board” to communicate.

His wife Linda Smith says because of that, and his appearance after his surgery that “he doesn’t go out into public much because he says he gets looks like he feels like he’s a monster.”

Keith is anything but.

Now, thanks to a local support group through Community Health Network, Keith, and other patients, are receiving the ultimate gift this holiday season.

“I’d kind of say it’s like birds of a feather flock together and they find comfort in that,” explains Smith.

That relief is fairly newfound. The close-knit group has known each other for less than a year.

“They told me before surgery, ‘you’ll sound the same,’” says Mike Congleton, a former teacher and lawyer, “And I don’t.”

That was just one reason Congleton, along with speech language pathologist Kaitlin Pennington, realized they needed more than one-on-one rehabilitation.

“I think it takes a huge toll on them and their quality of life,” says Pennington, “And it’s find a new way of life.”

The goal is to not only practice skills and learn how to voice again, but to do so in a safe space with support from one another.

“I really expected to be very depressed this year,” says Karla Jones, “but because I have this to look forward to I’m trooping on. I’m a survivor and I want to help other people survive.”

“Coming to the group and realizing hey, I’m not the only one, that really changed it a lot for me,” explains Rick McGee.

It has also been extremely impactful for their families.

“Sometimes I think once a month isn’t enough,” says Smith, “It gives one hope.”

The group says they’ve been given a different kind of gift this holiday season.

An optimism that once seemed out of reach.

“They are using their new way of communication and their new voice to build new relationships, and I think it’s a new chapter that they’re opening and finding a lot of joy in,” concludes Pennington.

You do not have to be a patient at Community Health to participate in the head and neck cancer support group.

They welcome anyone who has had a laryngectomy, or will soon be having one, to attend the meetings.

For more information, contact Kaitlin Pennington at 317-621-0480 or