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Former Smoker Finds A New Voice

Article date: August 7, 2002

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"No one wants to live like this out of choice. But, it was a choice I made without realizing the consequences. If I can help just one person stop smoking, then I will continue to speak out."


Choice As A Kid Affects Adult Life

Growing up in Indiana, Turkey, and Nebraska, Deborah Norton was part of a military family of smokers. Her parents smoked along with four brothers and a sister. But she never saw the effects of cancer, said Norton. "Cancer never touched my parents, my brothers, or sister."

"I was probably 10 years old the first time I experienced a cigarette," Norton said. "Someone brought them to the house. We were outside playing and one of the older kids just started passing it around."

Norton started smoking to be accepted by her peers. "I started smoking on a regular basis when I was 12," she said. "I'm sure my parents knew by the time I was in high school, but it was never discussed. Everyone did it and the commercials glamorized it." Smoking was considered cool then.

Smoking to be "cool" has left her with a permanent reminder of the youthful choice she made more than 35 years ago.

On Dec. 10, 1991, Norton was diagnosed with cancer of the larynx. The day she was diagnosed with cancer her entire family stopped smoking, said Norton.

Less than a month later, she had a complete laryngectomy (removal of her voice box).

"I didn't know the effect it would have on my voice," Norton said. "The doctor said my voice would be different, but I had no idea. I was completely shocked."

Learns New Way To Breathe And Talk

Norton no longer breathes through her mouth and nose, but through a hole in the front of her neck called a stoma. Her ability to talk comes by taking deep breaths and then burping the air back up again from her esophagus.

The sound is hoarse and guttural, but the words are clear.

"When I had the surgery, I was back to work within a week," she said. "I was working at the Creighton University bookstore [in Omaha, Neb.] at the time, and most people were very supportive. However, there were a few people who stopped having contact with me. I know they had a hard time dealing with it."

During the first year following her surgery, Norton said she was unable talk to anyone about what had happened. But with the support of family and friends, she slowly came to terms with the changes in her life and the challenges she had never been told about.

"I wasn't prepared for the drastic changes the surgery brought about. No one told me specifics," she said. "I could no longer swim, blow bubbles, or blow out birthday candles. And my sense of smell and taste were gone. When I cried or laughed there was no sound."

Gets Help For Daily Living

"My sister was the one who called my doctors to ask questions, and she was the one who called the American Cancer Society for more information," Norton said. "There really wasn't a lot of support from doctors and nurses about daily life after my surgery. I just learned as I went, and my family was there to support me."

It wasn't until about five years ago that Norton had the opportunity to speak with others who are faced with the daily challenges of living with a stoma.

"My son got me a computer and I was able to go online and look for information about laryngectomy patients," Norton said. "I came across a group called WebWhispers.

"People share their day-to-day problems and experiences," she said. "It wasn't until I started exchanging information with them that I learned how to deal with some of the things I once took for granted, like how to sneeze."

Norton also learned that once a person has cancer in the head or neck region, the chances of additional cancers increase. She considers herself lucky because she has been cancer free for 10 years.

She also realizes she is a completely different person since her cancer diagnosis.

Strives To Make A Difference

"It totally turns your life around," she said. "There are the obvious physical changes, but emotional ones as well. It's too bad this type of thing had to happen to make me the person I should have been all along."

Norton is a customer service director for the Great Plains Council of the Girl Scouts. "I'm definitely more compassionate," she said. "When I see someone on the street that's different, I smile at them, because I know I'm in their shoes, too. I'm just happy to be alive and making a difference."

During the past two years, Norton has been attending a laryngectomy survivors support group at St. Elizabeth's Hospital in Lincoln, Neb. Through her involvement she was encouraged to share her story to adults and youth who currently smoke or are thinking about starting.

"I was so nervous the first time I spoke to a group of kids," Norton said. "I didn't know how they would react. Some stared, some laughed, and others covered their eyes. I think they were as uncomfortable as I was."

She's now a volunteer for the American Cancer Society (ACS).

Recently, Norton was chosen to represent Nebraska as an ACS Relay For Life Community Ambassador. She will travel to Washington, D.C., to attend the Celebration on the Hill on Sept. 19. As one of 3,000 ACS Ambassadors, she will speak to members of Congress about the need for increasing funding for cancer research and cancer patient programs.

"No one wants to live like this out of choice," she said. "But, it was a choice, a choice I made without realizing the consequences. If I can help just one person stop smoking, then I will continue to speak out."