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When Cancer Stole My Voice, Mindset Helped Me Find It

by Cindy StempleSurvivor, Head and Neck CancerOctober 1, 2021View more posts from Cindy Stemple

Talking about mindset feels like a minefield when it comes to cancer survivorship, but I’m going to do it anyway. In a world where we as cancer patients and survivors are constantly bombarded with toxic positivity and sentiments such as “Just Stay Positive” or “Everything Happens for a Reason,” the one suggestion that felt somewhat helpful to me (relatively speaking) was to “Take Things One Day at a Time.”  

Although that viewpoint was much more palatable than some of the other “well-wishes” I received, as someone who considers herself a “doer”, I initially struggled to find ways to feel like an active participant in my recovery while applying this mindset. I couldn’t reconcile my desire to make progress toward “normalcy” with the idea of simply getting through that day without worrying about the next one. Then, someone on my care team reframed it for me.  

The cliff-notes version of my story is that I was diagnosed at age 27 with non-HPV Stage 3 Squamous Cell Carcinoma after finding a sore on my tongue. My initial treatment consisted of surgery and radiation, and unfortunately a little over two years after my original diagnosis I had a recurrence, which led to the reconstruction of approximately two-thirds of my tongue, the floor of my mouth, and the gums on one side of my jaw.  

Oral Cancer was particularly devastating for me because I am a singer. My undergraduate degree is in music, and even though my career led me in a different direction, I was (and still am) active within the local music community, and singing is something I consider a fundamental part of my identity. 

I remember struggling tremendously, both physically and mentally, in those early days after my surgeries and radiation when I couldn’t speak or eat, let alone sing. It was so difficult for me to envision a future where I would still be able to do the things I loved or even feel some semblance of normalcy when I was reliant on a feeding tube for nutrition and a white board for communication, where I played what I refer to as “the least-fun game of charades imaginable” with my husband and family if I wanted to express myself.

But one of my speech therapists shared some tough love in those hardest moments when my outlook was less-than-positive. She said something that really stuck with me and has guided me through both my recovery and the survivorship period. She said, “Your current circumstances are only permanent if YOU choose for them to be. Now is not the time to focus on how far you still have to go, but instead ask yourself what can you do today that will help you eventually move past this current struggle.”

Finally, I felt like I had a TANGIBLE way to apply the advice of “Taking Things One Day at a Time.” Some days, especially while I was still in the hospital, that meant eating one more bite of applesauce than I had attempted the day before. Later, it was showing up to a rehearsal and humming the notes without actually trying to sing. 

I didn’t give myself deadlines; I didn’t set the expectation that things would go back to the way they were before cancer; I let myself feel ALL the feelings of grief, anger, frustration, sadness, fear, etc. BUT…I discovered those feelings could coexist with trying to show up for myself and do a little more each day than I had done the day before. Day-by-day, one more bite of applesauce gradually turned into a bowl of soup and later meatloaf and mashed potatoes. Humming slowly turned to singing only the vowel sounds before strategically pulling in consonants.  

If someone had told me when I was laying in my hospital bed in those early days with my wound vac and my feeding tube that I would be singing (albeit not all that well yet) a little over a month later, I probably would have thought they were crazy. I certainly wouldn’t have believed less than a year after having the majority of my tongue reconstructed that I would be performing as a soloist for Handel’s Messiah at Christmastime. Was my voice and my diction what it was before cancer? Definitely not…but it was good enough…and I’m still working at improving every single day.  

Even after three years in remission, I still have difficult days, and I continue to face unexpected challenges as a result of my diagnosis and treatment. I now approach every new roadblock with that same question: “What can I do today that will help me move past this struggle sometime in the future?” This outlook has made the process infinitely easier as I try to navigate my life as a cancer survivor.  

So my advice to you is this: no matter where you are in your experience with cancer, try not to let yourself become overwhelmed by how different things are from the way they used to be, or how far you still have to go. It’s certainly not easy to do, but if you focus on the little ways you can make today better than yesterday, I hope you will also be able to look back one day and realize all those baby steps eventually added up to a mountain you’ve successfully climbed.

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