Essex doctor’s marathon walk to Stand Up To Cancer after nearly losing her voice to the disease
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A Colchester doctor who feared she may permanently lose her voice after treatment for cancer is urging people to raise money for research to beat the disease.
Colchester NHS psychiatrist Dr Tanu Sarma’s vocal cords were paralysed during an operation to remove both her thyroid cancer tumour and her thyroid gland – meaning she could not swallow properly and no longer talk.
Tanu, who lives in Chelmsford, knew she might be able to whisper again but there were no guarantees that she would talk as she used to.
Not only was her career at risk but her son Kabir, then aged just seven months, only ate when Dr Sarma sang to him. With the cancer diagnosed when she was on maternity leave in January 2016 she feared Kabir, now two, would never know her voice and she would never again be able to read to her daughter Ananya, aged six at the time.
After hours exercising her vocal cords, within months Tanu was able to whisper and finally she could speak as she had before.
Now she is encouraging people to support Stand Up To Cancer and is fundraising for Cancer Research UK to help other people who are diagnosed with the disease in the future.
Stand Up To Cancer is a joint fundraising campaign from Cancer Research UK and Channel 4. Since its UK launch in 2012, Stand Up To Cancer has raised more than £38million.
Tanu was diagnosed after she was referred to see a consultant about unrelated hearing issues. Also a cancer specialist, he noticed a lump on her neck and referred Tanu for an urgent biopsy.
Tanu said: “I didn’t think anything of it, but a week after the biopsy I got a call from the surgeon, who asked if I could come into the clinic that night. I asked if it was bad news, and he said it was, but could not tell me anymore other than they had found some abnormal cells.
“When he told me to bring my husband and asked how old my children were I put the phone down and thought: ‘I am not going to live to see my children grow up.’ Those few hours between then and getting to the clinic were the worst part.”
Diagnosed with grade five papillary thyroid cancer, she opted to have the whole thyroid removed in February 2016 to avoid further surgery in the future. Tanu had been warned one of the potential but rare side effects was losing her voice.
Tanu said: “When it sunk in I was scared because they did not know if I would ever speak again. That was the worst thing, thinking I would never speak to my son and daughter again.
“I had recorded my voice for them in a talking book. I thought it would help them when I was away having my radioactive iodine treatment, I didn’t realise it might be the only way they would hear my voice.
“But I didn’t give up. I had a very good speech therapist and I worked so hard. I spent hours every day doing my exercises.
“At first nothing came out at all, I tried to copy my therapist but there would be no noise. But I kept doing the exercises and it worked.
“At first I would tire easily and it would go again, I could only whisper and people often couldn’t hear me. I had a whistle in every room at home so I could get my husband Anand’s attention if I needed to.”
It was not the end of her treatment. To ensure any remaining cancer cells were killed off she needed to have radioactive iodine therapy – because the radiation can affect people around patients, they are usually kept in isolation until the radiation reaches a low enough level.
Tanu said: “I had to be in isolation in hospital for five days, even my meals were delivered to a box in the wall of my room from which I had to retrieve them.
“The hardest part of this was not being able to see my children for three weeks, as coming into contact with me could have endangered them. My in-laws moved to our house to look after the children, and I drove myself from hospital to their house, where my husband came to stay with me, but we slept in different rooms and couldn’t be in the same room for more than five minutes.
“Before all of this I used to hate how my voice sounded when it was recorded but now it sounds so precious to me. This experience, everything we have been through, has made me realise how precious life is, just those moments with family, all the little things you take for granted. Now I feel lucky to be alive.”
Later this month Tanu will be taking on an endurance challenge to raise money for Cancer Research UK and will be walking the Shine Night Walk – a marathon through London.
Danielle Glavin, Cancer Research UK spokesperson for Essex, said: “We’d like to thank Tanu for highlighting Stand Up To Cancer. Tanu’s story shows exactly why we need to rebel against the disease, raise money and save lives.”