Roger Ebert's View on Losing His Voice

Ebert says he's "not bitter" about the surgeries that left him unable to speak.

February 17, 2010, 7:39 PM

Feb. 18, 2010— -- Two years after a battle with thyroid cancer robbed him of the ability to speak, film critic Roger Ebert is showing the world how the unexpected twist in his life story only strengthened his voice.

"I'd always heard how blind people developed much better hearing, and deaf people became more observant. It's true," Ebert wrote in an e-mail interview with

"When you lose something, your body and mind adapt to compensate. In my case, whatever energy I put into speaking has now been channeled into writing, and my writing has benefitted," he said.

Indeed, fans haven't stopped following the man whose thumbs alone could influence thousands, if not millions, of moviegoers at a time on the television shows he co-hosted with Gene Siskel for a total of 23 years.

Ebert has started to open up to the public about his life post-surgery in his journal at the Chicago Sun Times. An in-depth interview with Esquire magazine this month also chronicled Ebert's life since he lost the ability to eat, drink and speak.

"There wasn't some soul-dropping moment for that realization. It just ... developed. I never felt hungry, I never felt thirsty, I wasn't angry because the doctors had done their best. But I went through a period of obsession about food and drink," Ebert wrote in a January entry to his online journal, where he went on to describe a vivid memory of drinking root beer. Ebert now uses a feeding tube for nourishment.

"Let me return to the original question: Isn't it sad to be unable eat or drink? Not as sad as you might imagine. I save an enormous amount of time. I have control of my weight. Everything agrees with me. And so on," he wrote.

But Ebert admitted he missed "the society" of talking with people over lunch and dinner.

Ebert says neither he nor his doctors expected him to lose his voice when he first was diagnosed with thyroid cancer in 2002.

Roger Ebert's Doctors Did Not Expect Complications

In general, oncologists say thyroid cancer is often one of the easiest types of cancers to treat, and most treatment can be "curative" with just surgery and follow-up care.

"Complications as a result of thyroid surgery occur less than 2 percent [of patients]," said Dr. Eric Genden, director of the Head and Neck Cancer Center at the Mount Sinai Medical Center in New York City.

Genden said complications "include infection, bleeding, hoarseness and the need to take calcium -- not the inability to eat or speak."

"We never discuss it because under the normal conditions, it is not a risk," Genden said.

But experts also point out that there are no guarantees. Several nerves that are crucial to controlling the vocal cords run just behind the thyroid gland in the neck, according to Dr. Steven K. Libutti, director of Montefiore-Einstein Center for Cancer Care at the Montefiore Medical Center in New York City.

"In some cases, based on the characteristics of the tumor, even the most experienced thyroid surgeon may not be able to avoid a nerve injury," said Libutti. "Fortunately, this is very rare."

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

But of all professionals to cross paths with Ebert, his doctors have escaped any criticism.

Roger Ebert Upbeat About Life Without a Voice

"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.