Dr. Gregory Randolph, of the Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmary in Boston, said he and colleagues are developing new ways to monitor the electrical activity of the vocal cords during surgery to avoid injury. In some patients, minor nerve damage can be repaired and their voice can be restored.
But "my main perspective is better prevention, meaning monitoring and better attention to testing the nerves in surgery," Randolph said.
In Ebert's case, the cancer spread to his throat. Attempts to treat the spreading cancer with radiation led to more complications, and several surgeries meant to restore his voice failed.
Ebert has since left his TV series "At the Movies" and returned to reviewing films full time at rogerebert.com.
But of all professionals to cross paths with Ebert, his doctors have escaped any criticism.
"Why should I be bitter? Every surgeon did his best," Ebert wrote in an e-mail. "If the radiation weakened my tissue and prevented the surgeries from working, that was my decision. I hoped to avoid surgery by using radiation."
Randolph, who is also an associate professor of otolaryngology at Harvard Medical School, said losing one's voice is deeply personal and each individual reacts differently.
According to Randolph, if the nerves running to one side of the voice box are damaged, a person can still have a whisper of a voice. If both sides are damaged, the "voice is substantially abnormal, swallowing is substantially abnormal. But the big ticket item is that you can't breathe."
In that case a patient would need a tracheostomy.
"Voice, it's a very human, personal and not-very-frequently-thought-about function," Randolph said. He's noticed some patients who are content with a whisper or electronic voice amplifiers.
"But for some individuals, it involves how they interact with coworkers and family members," Randolph said. "It robs them of something that's very personal to them and it relates to how they are perceived in their social groups."
Correction: Due to a reporting error, Ebert's series "At the Movies" was mistakenly named as the animated series "The Critic."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.