I was 15 when both of my parents were diagnosed with cancer – within the span of one week. My dog, Freckles, also died that same week from cancer.
You know that magic trick where there’s a beautiful dinner table set for a bunch of people – with a tablecloth and all the china, crystal, and lit candles? Then the magician somehow rips out the tablecloth and all the tableware stays put?
Well that’s just a show. The way I felt at the end of that week was that the tablecloth had been pulled out from under my life and nothing ever remained the same.
My father succumbed to a short and valiant struggle with colon cancer. He died, at the age of 62, three months later, just after my 16th birthday. My mom survived breast cancer and lived another blessed 20 years.
During the first month of this ordeal, both parents were in the hospital – they were next-door neighbors, room 5401 and 5403. My sister and I would come to the hospital every morning and stay all day. After they left the hospital, my sister returned to college and I became the caregiver at home for two very sick parents – all while I was a junior in high school.
This drama and trauma happened in 1971 – exactly 40 years ago, and I remember the details as if it was yesterday (and I hate clichés). As lucky as I was to have a loving sister and many close family friends, this journey was a tremendous challenge. I felt alone and helpless, even as I tried to keep a smile on my face each day.
In fact, during the three months between my parents’ diagnoses and my father’s death, I began to have severe breast pain. The pain was so strong I could not sleep. I knew I was also dying, but felt that I should just keep this information to myself. There was enough craziness. I could not tell anyone, I was not yet able to drive, and how could I burden anyone with this knowledge that wasn’t already also distraught? It was an era when seeking therapy was not only taboo, but also cost prohibitive.
I strongly urge medical teams to have someone on their team that can talk to the involved children. I wish I had had the benefit of a counselor, social worker, or a nurse to share my fear, psychosomatic pain, concerns, and loss.
When families deal with health crises, the children need help as well. All the plates, glasses, and silverware end up on the floor, on the ceiling, on the sidewalk. It’s a really messy time.
NOTE TO MY BLOG READERS: This is not my usual type of blog. The Chair of the Palliative Care Department at Baylor Hospital asked me to write about this personal experience. This forward-thinking department has just hired a counselor to work with families that face medical challenges.
One thing to note from a communication perspective about a medical issue such as the one I faced when I was a teenager – is the power of listening. Rachel, my Marketing Assistant, is doing a 6-part series on listening skills. I wish someone had given an opportunity to vent when I was going through this most difficult time.
I have a client that looks like Jack Nicholson and SOUNDS like Jack Nicholson. (Darn it – he is NOT Jack Nicholson!) He told me that it was a slight novelty and he even had fun one day signing a few autographs at an airport. But that’s where the fun ends and the hassles start. Psuedo-Jack’s gravely voice creates more havoc than pleasure. He’s hard to hear and has endured vocal challenges for a long time.
Do you take care of your voice? Have you tried to communicate all day with your patients and team and family when you’ve “lost” your voice?
According to the Innovation Report, a website for teachers, millions of workers are losing their voices due to overuse and it’s costing the economy millions of dollars. The Work Hoarse Report urges that people who use their voice a great deal at work must take care not to overstrain their vocal chords.
You are particularly vulnerable. You talk all day long “over” the hum of your dental equipment and the music in your office. Don’t accept a husky voice and a dry throat as a normal hazard. You could be doing lasting damage to your voice.
Here is a checklist provided by the National Institute of Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (NIDOC) to discern whether your voice is unhealthy.
· Has your voice become hoarse or raspy?
· Have you lost your ability to hit some high notes when singing?
· Does your voice suddenly sound deeper?
· Does your throat often feel raw, achy, or strained?
· Has it become an effort to talk?
· Do you find yourself repeatedly clearing your throat?
Here’s some great strategies, suggested by the NIDOC, on how to protect one of your most valuable speaking tools, your voice:
· Hydrate your vocal chords. Drink room temperature liquids to ensure your throat is well lubricated and doesn’t become dry. Six to eight glasses a day is recommended. (Those proverbial glasses of water keep showing up on every list – whether we’re trying to lose weight or enhance our skin or save our voice!)
· Be very aware of your posture. Stand up straight and look forward so that you don’t have to strain your voice from an awkward position. This is a true challenge in your profession.
· Vary the speed and tone of your speech.
· Pace yourself – speaking quickly can increase tension in the vocal chords.
· Never ever shout. Not only does it put strain on your voice, it is also not a good strategy as you’ll have nowhere else to go after that.
· Avoid eating too many dairy products before giving a presentation. Dairy products can encourage the secretion of phlegm which interferes with the natural working of the vocal chords. Professional broadcasters are told never to drink milk before going on air.
· Limit your intake of drinks that include alcohol or caffeine. These act as diuretics (substances that increase urination) and cause the body to lose water. This loss of fluids dries out the voice. Alcohol also irritates the mucous membranes that line the throat.
· Don’t smoke and avoid second-hand smoke. Cancer of the vocal folds is seen most often in individuals who smoke.
· Practice good breathing techniques when singing or talking. It is important to support your voice with deep breaths from the diaphragm, the wall that separates your chest and abdomen. Talking from the throat, without supporting breath, puts a great strain on the voice.
· Avoid eating spicy foods. Spicy foods can cause stomach acid to move into the throat or esophagus (reflux).
· Use a humidifier in your home. This is especially important in winter or in dry climates.
· Try not to overuse your voice. Avoid speaking or singing when your voice is hoarse.
· Wash your hands often to prevent colds and flu.
· Include plenty of whole grains, fruits, and vegetables in your diet. These foods contain vitamins A, E, and C. They also help keep the mucus membranes that line the throat healthy.
· Do not cradle the phone when talking. Cradling the phone between the head and shoulder for extended periods of time can cause muscle tension in the neck.
· Exercise regularly. Exercise increases stamina and muscle tone. This helps provide good posture and breathing, which are necessary for proper speaking.
· Get enough rest. Physical fatigue has a negative effect on voice.
· Avoid talking in noisy places. Trying to talk above noise causes strain on the voice.
· Consider using a microphone when giving presentations. In relatively static environments such as exhibit areas, classrooms, or exercise rooms, a lightweight microphone and an amplifier-speaker system can be of great help.
· Consider voice therapy. A speech-language pathologist who is experienced in treating voice problems can provide education on healthy use of the voice and instruction in proper voice techniques.
Your voice is your business. Good luck in maintaining its health.