In the process of destroying cancer cells, chemotherapy affects other fast-growing cells as well, such as those in the mucous membranes of your throat and mouth, causing extreme pain and making it difficult to speak beyond a whisper.
In a discussion thread hosted by the website “Navigating Cancer and Beyond,” patients reported losing their voices to the point where they couldn’t even whisper. One, a singer, wrote, “I had this symptom every round of chemo. Worst in the first few days but it got better before next round. Gargling with baking soda and salt helped.”
“My oncologist says it’s because my blood cell count is down from the chemotherapy,” wrote another cancer patient. “When you have low blood cell count, your body can’t carry the amount of oxygen in your blood as it normally does, so you can get short of breath easy, which also affects your voice.”
That writer advised that staying well-hydrated helped, while another recommended ginger tea and getting plenty of rest. Happily, all confirmed that their voices returned to normal after chemotherapy.
In my case, the inability to speak beyond a whisper was caused by mucositis, an inflammatory reaction that spread from my mouth — where it presented as sores — all the way down my esophagus and into my stomach. It was so severe that I was put on a pain pump and needed to receive intravenous nutrition.
These infections are the result of a condition called neutropenia, an abnormally low level of neutrophils, which are a type of white blood cell that fights infection. Some degree of neutropenia occurs in about half of all people who undergo chemotherapy. It is a common side effect for people with leukemia.
In one terrifying instance not directly related to chemotherapy, I was unable to speak when I emerged from a coma that was induced by kidney failure. This happened after my last transplant 5½ years ago.
My voice finally returned during the night shift in the hospital; a nurse nicknamed Big Red insisted that she was going to get me to speak that evening.
“What’s my name?” she asked.
“Lisa,” I whispered in slurred speech.
“Say it loud!” she said.
“Lisa,” I said, and repeated it multiple times until finally the name came out loud and clear.
In that case, human kindness and determination — not medicine — was the best therapy I could get.
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