A former engineer who lost his voice box to cancer is helping others facing the same operation learn how to speak again.
Peter Holloway runs the North Wales Laryngectomy Club, which counsels and supports those facing the traumatic treatment.
The 70-year-old from Penrhyn Bay suffered a cancerous tumour on his larynx, or voice box, and was treated at the Cancer Treatment Centre at Ysbyty Glan Clwyd, Bodelwyddan, nine years ago.
Surgeons removed his larynx, meaning he had to learn to speak in a different way, with air drawn through his gullet.
Specialist nurses and surgeons now invite him to share his experiences with patients who are about to undergo the same complex operation and help to ease their worries.
He said: “There’s no doubt it’s a frightening time and people get very worried about what is going to happen. I go in, if a patient wants me to, and try and talk them through it so they can see it’s not all doom and gloom.
“I’ve just been into see a gentleman who is 83 and having to have a laryngectomy. I explained what to expect and when I left he was really positive and much more at ease with the procedure.
“People think of cancer as a death sentence, but it isn’t. The treatment I had at Glan Clwyd, under my consultant Mr Hammad was amazing, and I know that the others members also had great treatment from ENT surgeon Mr Zeitoun.
“It was everything, the nurses, surgeons, speech therapists and the whole after care package. Nothing was ever too much trouble and we are definitely very lucky to have such a fantastic cancer centre serving North Wales.”
Peter, who also plays the drums with the Llandudno Swing Band, took over as chair of the Laryngectomy Club eight years ago at a time when it only had four members, and has since seen membership grow to 24.
He said: “We meet every six weeks at the Faenol Fawr Hotel, right next door to Glan Clwyd hospital.
“We try to offer support and it’s a great way for people who have had a laryngectomy to get together, with or without their partners, wives and husbands. We have guest speakers come in but basically it’s a way to socialise, sympathise and offer support.”
Peter, who was born in Glossop but has lived in North Wales with Dorothy, his wife of 36 years, for more than 16 years, added: “No one who undergoes a laryngectomy should ever feel alone or that somehow life isn’t worth living.
“You can’t let cancer beat you and as members of Glan Clwyd Laryngectomy Club we aren’t intent on giving up anytime soon!”
Liz Thomas, a Ysbyty Glan Clwyd speech and language therapist, also comes along to the Laryngectomy Club meetings and is always on hand to offer help and support.
She said: “Patients who have to have a laryngectomy almost always have to have the operation because of cancer or cancer related illness. Removing the larynx or voice box means patients have to learn to speak in a different way.
“Some, like Peter, manage to learn through esophageal speech, which basically means learning to move air from the mouth and get it to produce a vibration sound at the oesophageal level which is used as voice.
“For other people that isn’t always possible and they then use an electrolarynx, a medical device held to the throat that produces the vibrations that the larynx once did. It allows the sound to be amplified so the speech can be heard.”
She added: “It’s vital for the wellbeing of cancer patients who have had their larynx removed that they are able to communicate and talk. It’s my role, as well as what I do in the hospital, to come along to meetings and offer support.
“The Glan Clwyd Cancer Treatment Unit recognises the importance and need for someone like Peter to come in, talk to patients who want to see him, so he can put them more at ease with their situation.
“Peter has never let his cancer get in the way of his life; he is so positive despite the huge changes to his personal circumstances that came about with having to undergo a laryngectomy.”
Colin Clifford Jones, 65, of Holyhead was diagnosed with thyroid cancer and cancer of the larynx in August 2015 and says the treatment he received at Glan Clwyd Hospital’s cancer unit was amazing.
He said: “They saved my life and surrounded me with love. I can’t fault anything about the way I was treated. Everyone was incredible and I quickly went from having no hope to being full of optimism.
“Peter came in to see me as chairman of the Laryngectomy Club before my operation. I was asked would I like to see him and thought it might help so I agreed.
“He told me there is life after cancer and how important it was to have a positive mindset. He made me realise it wasn’t the end of the world.”
Colin, who used to work for Anglesey Aluminium, now speaks with the aid of an electrolarynx.
He said: “It makes a huge difference being able to speak. I do get funny looks; we all do, as we sound like robots but people quickly get used to it. I’m used to it now and it really doesn’t bother me.”
Lynn Morrisey, 62, a care worker from Barmouth, was diagnosed with cancer of the throat and oesophagus in December 2014 and underwent a 15-hour operation at Ysbyty Glan Clwyd which included the removal of her larynx.
Now speaking with the aid of an electrolarynx she said: “The care I received at Glan Clwyd was excellent. They saved my life.
“This was the second time I had been diagnosed with cancer having been treated for thyroid cancer 29 years ago.
“The operation for the throat cancer, which was carried out by five surgeons, involved a laryngectomy but it was far more complicated as I had to have my neck basically rebuilt.
“My stomach also had to be lifted up and I had muscle and skin taken from my thigh to help rebuild my neck.”
“I was a patient at Glan Clwyd Hospital for more than a month and was later admitted to Wrexham Maelor Hospital for three weeks because of weight loss and the fact I couldn’t eat.”
She added: “I was asked if I’d like to see Peter before the laryngectomy but I decided I didn’t want to. At that time I seemed to be facing one problem after another and couldn’t face seeing anyone other than my family.
“However, after the operation Peter came to see me and he gave me more confidence and made me realise I could learn to speak again although I still find it hard.
“I have only attended one meeting of the Glan Clwyd Laryngectomy Club but will be coming to more meetings when I can. It’s difficult as we care for my mum who is 92 years of age.”
Lynn’s husband, Kevin Morrisey said the treatment his wife received at Glan Clwyd was amazing and undoubtedly saved her life.
He said: “I can’t praise the hospital enough. Lynn uses an electrolarynx which gives her some speech but she does find it quite hard. We used a Boogie Board at first, which is a bit like an Etch a Sketch toy.
“You can write words on the surface then, with a push of a button, they disappear from the screen. We found it on the internet and after we started using it on the ward everyone wanted one. The hospital ordered loads of them as a result.”
William Griffiths, 75, of Holywell, was diagnosed with cancer of the larynx in 2013 and underwent a laryngectomy at Ysbyty Glan Clwyd.
He said: “When the consultant sits you down with your wife and gives you the news that you have cancer it’s horrendous. There is no easy way to do it, I suppose.
“However, the treatment I had was marvellous and you realise pretty quickly that you need to be positive, it’s the only way.
“I couldn’t fault anything about the way I was treated; it makes it so much easier facing up to cancer having so much support.
“I learnt to speak using esophageal speech so don’t have an electrolarynx. It’s certainly better than having to write everything down or miming.”
William added: “The Laryngectomy Club is fantastic. We have guest speakers and there is a great social side.
“It’s what we need, having the opportunity to meet with people who have gone through the same thing, the same operation and faced the same issues. It’s so worthwhile and Peter does a great job as chairman, and Ann and Cliff Owen jointly as secretary.”
The Glan Clwyd Laryngectomy Club’s next meeting is on Thursday, April 28 at 11am at the Faenol Fawr Hotel.
For more information contact Peter Holloway on 01492 544167.