Vet finds new voice, after cancer steals his

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Wade and Denise Wheeler are happiest out here on their Palmetto, Georgia, horse farm, where kids with special needs come for equine therapy. 

Denise says her husband has always been at his best around people.

"He's a character, anybody who knows Wade Wheeler, he's a character," Denise Wheeler says. "He doesn't go in a restaurant without being, without talking to someone."

That's why the Marine Corps veteran's 2010 diagnosis with laryngeal cancer, or cancer of the voice box, seems especially cruel.

"Because I used to love to talk," Wade Wheeler says, speaking with the help of an electrolarynx.  "And, then I had to start communicating by texting and writing slowly on paper."

When Wheeler's cancer came back in 2017, this time as stage IV, a surgeon removed his voice box.

And, just like that, the 81-year old went silent.

"It was a nightmare," his wife remembers. "I have voice(messages) on my phone that he left me, voicemails, just so I can always have his voice from then. But, yeah.  Knowing that he was never going to use his voice again, will break you heart."

As the months passed in silence, the Wheelers searched for help.

While undergoing radiation treatment, the found Jennifer Cargile, a speech language pathologist at the Cancer Treatment Centers of America in Atlanta, or CTCA.

"And so prior to coming to CTCA, he actually didn't have any way to communicate," Jennifer Cargile says.  "So, he was just communicating by writing. He would just write notes back and forth to his wife Denise."

First, Cargile taught Wheeler how to use an electrolarynx, a battery-operated device that uses vibrations to mimic speech.

"So, the electrolarynx is quite mechanical," Cargile says. "It's great because it's the first way to communicate after a total laryngectomy. But not anyone can pick up on it, and it's very hard on the phone."

To help Wheeler speak more naturally, Cargile is now teaching him to use a tracheoesophageal prosthesis.

It pushes air from his lungs through an implanted valve, then out of his mouth, to allow him to speak. 

But, first, Wheeler has to learn how to control his breathing.

"It's an effort to learn how to properly breathe and put the words out there," he says, holding his figure over the stoma in his neck.

Cargile is working to teach Wheeler how to channel his breathing, and pace himself.

"We really don't think about it, but when we speak, we stop breathing, speak, and then we breathe again," she says.

Wade Wheeler says losing, and then finding his voice again, has made him more patient.

"I have a lot of toleration for other people," he says.  "I'm not nearly as quick to make judgements."

And Denise Wheeler feels like the old Wade, the talk-your-ear-off Wade, is back.

"And, I guarantee you his communication is what gave him the will to live," she says. "Now that he's able to talk, Lord help us, he's back at it!"