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A voice saving surgery

Each year, about 12,000 cases of cancer of the larynx are diagnosed in the United States. About 5,000 of those patients will have to have a laryngectomy// - taking away their voice box and communication, as they know it. Here's a new alternative that's giving patients their voices back.

For five years, five months and 13 days, Amy Hancock had no voice. "Some things you do not forget, and that is something she says she will never forget.

Diagnosed with cancer of her vocal cords, Hancock had surgery to remove the cancer -- and her larynx -- at just 21. Without her larynx, she had no voice. Several attempts to restore it failed, but she didn't give up. She says, "I've always been a talker. I knew that I was going to talk again." That thought was just a wish until she met head and neck surgeon Randal Paniello, M.D. He says, "Communication is important to various degrees. It's important to everyone, but to some people, it's really important, and in her case, she's one of those."

To give Hancock her voice back, Dr. Paniello, of Washington University at St. Louis, made a speaking tube using skin tissue, an artery and vein from her arm, and cartilage from her nose. It was his first time performing the surgery, and he says Hancock is the first person in the United States to have it done.

"When she first had air going through the shunt and into her mouth, it was the first time she had actually passed any air through her mouth in over five years," Dr. Paniello says.

Being able to pull air from her lungs allows Hancock to speak naturally and in long sentences. "The first words I said were, 'Thank, you, Dr. Paniello,'" Hancock says. Now, she spends much of her time talking to Macie. "Macie is my daughter. She's technically a dog, but that does not make her any less my daughter."

Hancock will continue to strengthen her voice, and after being cancer-free for more than five years, she's ready to take on the world. She says, "You have to decide that cancer is not going to beat you, and so that's what I did. I fought, and that's why I'm here."

The procedure is not for everyone. Many patients can have their voice restored using conventional surgical techniques, but for some patients -- like Hancock -- those procedures fail to work, and they need another alternative. A surgeon in Germany developed the procedure.
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