Patient Stories

Rodney's Journey to Reclaim His Voice

May. 8, 2024

Rodney, a chef, overcomes stage 4 laryngeal cancer with surgery and therapy, returning to work and inspiring others.

Rodney’s Passion and Family

Rodney is a 61-year-old Cincinnatian, a father, husband, and grandfather, who boasts a culinary career spanning over three decades, spending time in prestigious establishments like the Maisonette and Trio's. For him, cooking is not merely a job but a passion. He is a proud dog parent, doting on his K-9 boxer, Beau. Married to his devoted wife Janice of more than 33 years, Rodney cherishes his family, including his newborn granddaughter, Caleyah Mae, whose arrival brought newfound joy to their lives during a challenging time.

The Cancer Diagnosis: An Unexpected Turn

In February 2023, Rodney's journey took an unexpected turn when he noticed a gradual change in his voice, accompanied by discomfort in his neck. Concerned, he sought answers from a local Ear, Nose & Throat specialist. The physician ordered a biopsy that revealed cancer had taken root in Rodney's voice box. The diagnosis was specific: laryngeal cancer, a type of head and neck cancer, was threatening not only his voice but his life.

“I truly have a village of family, friends, and a supportive pastor, Dr. Mya P. Miller, who has been on this journey with me from the beginning,” said Rodney.

Choosing a Cancer Treatment Plan

The ENT specialist knew Rodney needed care from UC Health. He referred him to Dr. Yash Patil, MD, an Otolaryngologist/Head and Neck Surgeon at UC Gardner Neuroscience Institute and the director of the Adult Airway Reconstruction Program. Under Dr. Patil's compassionate care, Rodney faced his diagnosis with unwavering resolve.

“Dr. Patil ordered another biopsy to examine my throat. The biopsy came back, identifying [stage 4] cancer was surely located on my voice box. He shared the options of radiation, chemotherapy, and surgery. Before I made my final decision, I was advised I needed to meet with the radiation and chemotherapy staff to receive knowledge of all possible options, which I did. My final decision was to have surgery to attempt to remove ALL cancer on my voice box.”

Laryngectomy: A New Beginning

After careful consideration, Rodney chose to undergo a surgical procedure known as a laryngectomy to remove the cancerous cells from his voice box. Before surgery, Rodney had extensive counseling about how he would learn to speak and eat normally again. On May 25, 2023, Rodney successfully underwent a four-hour laryngectomy and free flap reconstruction. During the surgery, his cancer was completely removed, and his swallowing tube was rebuilt.

The postoperative phase was challenging. For seven days post-surgery, Rodney remained in the intensive care unit with a feeding tube that would stay with him temporarily.

“The feeding tube was with me for two weeks. I understood I needed to get food in my system while my throat healed, so I pushed through this part of my recovery, knowing that it was only temporary and soon I would be eating food through my mouth (I could not wait),” recalls Rodney.

Recovery, Rehabilitation and Regaining a Voice

In the initial few weeks, Rodney relied on a whiteboard and an electrolarynx, a battery-operated machine that produces sound to create a voice to communicate. Because of his progress and determination, Rodney received a voice prosthesis in June 2023. This communication device is a surgically implanted one-way valve that allows airflow between the trachea and the esophagus after laryngectomy.

Weekly visits to his medical team, led by Dr. Patil, became Rodney's new routine. With determination and the expert guidance of Farah Kaval and Angela Terese Dionisio, speech pathologists at the University of Cincinnati Voice and Swallowing Center, Rodney embarked on a path forward to reclaim his voice, one syllable at a time, without the aid of an electrolarynx. Though setbacks were inevitable, Rodney's resolve remained unshaken, and he remains cancer-free.

“It was amazing the first time Farah asked me to speak with my voice during one of the sessions. I said, "Thank you, Jesus," followed by my name, Rodney.”

“Rodney was one of those remarkable survivors who takes every challenge in stride. He always came to all his therapy appointments with a smile on his face, ready to learn more and take on the challenges that would help him talk with his new voice again. He became independent with his care very quickly, allowing him to return to his work and family life,” said Farah.

Rodney’s Return to the Kitchen

Just three months after his initial surgery, Rodney returned to the kitchen, performing his duties as before and doing what he loved. Although sometimes he gets creative with his communication of kitchen commands, his team has adapted and embraced this new way of working.

Today, Rodney embraces his life with gratitude and purpose. He finds solace in sharing his journey, inspiring others to confront adversity with courage and faith. His story serves as a powerful reminder of the resilience that’s needed to face head and neck cancer. In his brief time with the team, he has become a mentor for cancer survivors and volunteers his time to talk to other individuals who have just been diagnosed with the same types of cancer and are about to start their surgical journey. Speaking with him allows the other individuals to feel assured that there is light at the end of the tunnel.

“I want people to know that to continue this new life journey, you must dig deep inside yourself. With your faith, you will be determined to push through and come out better on the other side of your situation. While there were so many people on my care team, family, and friends to assist me, I was the only one who could do my part! Every day, I remind myself to continue doing my part to live out my new life!”

Rodney is a beacon of hope and a powerful reminder that we allow patients to reimagine their futures at UC Health.