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Stephen Meier is proud of his Philadelphia roots. This Somerton resident speaks with a decidedly Philly cadence, an especially notable feature since he had his larynx removed in 2012 when he was 59.
Now retired from the City of Philadelphia’s Water Department, Stephen’s journey with cancer started with soreness on the right side of his throat. His family doctor thought there was a tumor on his right vocal cord and ordered a biopsy. “He told me from the beginning he thought it was cancer,” recalled Stephen, who had lost close family members to breast and colon cancer. “I’m the kind of person who isn’t prone to panic,” he said. “Panic just causes confusion. I figured, somebody can fix this.”
"I knew the cancer was coming back."
The treatment plan was to remove the tumor, followed by 30 radiation sessions in December 2011. Not long after he finished his radiation, Stephen started losing his voice. “I knew the cancer was coming back.” In November 2012, Stephen's doctor sent him for a second opinion and another biopsy at a teaching hospital in Philadelphia. That's where he learned the tumor had returned. “The doctors were baffled by the fact that I was breathing considering I had smoked for 45 years,” said Stephen. That’s when he was scheduled for a total laryngectomy which would effectively remove his voice box and take away his voice. “I wasn’t panicking,” he recalled. “My attitude was, they know what they’re doing, they’ll take care of me.”
His surgery was problematic. Unfortunately, a muscle taken from his leg was used to rebuild his throat area, which his body rejected. A second surgery utilized a pectoral muscle from his chest, resulting in a third surgery to keep the infected muscle from dying off. Stephen contracted a dangerous Methicillin Resistant Staphylococcus Aureus (MRSA) infection, which left him with open wounds in his neck. While being treated in a hyperbaric chamber to promote healing, he used an electrolarynx. While this technology allowed him to talk, it wasn't the way he pictured himself communicating for the rest of his life. As a result, Stephen became depressed and despondent. This was a guy who had a great singing voice, who enjoyed going to karaoke with his wife. “All I wanted to do was sleep,” he recalled.
A support group at Fox Chase Cancer Center gave Stephen hope - and led him to Dr. Lango and Dr. Galloway.
Stephen researched support groups for people who have had throat cancer, and with his wife by his side, went to one at Fox Chase Cancer Center led by Katie Moran MS, CCC-SLP, Senior Speech Pathologist and social worker, Florence Bender, a founding member of the Speak-Easy group. Turned out, it was a game changer.
“Because of that laryngectomy support group, I fell in love with Fox Chase and decided to transfer my care over to Dr. Lango and Dr. Galloway.” Miriam N. Lango, MD, and Thomas J. Galloway, MD, are members of the Fox Chase Cancer Center head and neck cancer treatment team.
Working closely with his treatment team, along with physical therapist Jenna Balaicuis, who helped him manage the effects of lymphedema, Stephen started seeing a life for himself, post-laryngectomy. “I started getting information from people like myself,” Stephen recalled. “How they sleep at night, how they arrange their throat, keep their tubes clean. I was getting a lot of answers. I got to the point that I’d rather go there than sleep.” It wasn’t long before Stephen started helping other people being treated for laryngeal cancer, offering much needed support and information from an all too informed point of view.
"The clinicians at Fox Chase are attentive to me and my needs."
Unlike his previous hospital experience – “I always felt like I was being herded like cattle” – Stephen feels that his Fox Chase team really care about him. “When I’m at Fox Chase seeing my doctors or talking to the therapist, I can take my time and ask as many questions as I want. The clinicians at Fox Chase are attentive to me and my needs.” Katie asked him if he had considered a TEP prosthetic device to facilitate his speech. Stephen had previously discounted the option because he’d been told he’d need surgery to change it out every six months. “I couldn’t bear the thought of that,” he said. “Katie told me she was pretty confident she could successfully implant a TEP prosthetic device. And she did. That was in 2013,” Stephen said. ‘I still don’t sound like I used to, but I feel that it’s given me much of my voice back. My life is different, but with the help of my team at Fox Chase, we're making it work."