A 501c3 Charitable Organization

Diana Verrilli

It’s Never Too Late to Reclaim Your Voice

“Say it again,” Diana prodded her daughter. The family was heading to the mountains to go skiing, but it wasn’t the scenery Diana was focused on; instead, she was examining her daughter’s mouth as she voiced the word Diana was determined to remaster.

“You said it just right, mom,” her daughter replied, but Diana didn’t agree. She intended to keep practicing until she could say the word exactly as she had before tongue cancer upended her world and altered her ability to speak.

The diagnosis had come as a shock. Diana was an active, fit, 52 year old with a healthy lifestyle and none of the usual risk factors for cancer. She had only gone in to see the doctor due to a pesky canker sore that wasn’t going away, but the biopsy revealed something far more serious: stage 3 squamous cell carcinoma, an aggressive oral cancer. 

The treatment was punishing: first surgery, followed by numerous rounds of harsh chemotherapy and six weeks of painful radiation that burned her neck, necessitating a feeding tube when it became impossible to chew or swallow. Toward the end of treatment, Diana developed a pulmonary embolism – a blockage of the blood vessels leading to the lungs – requiring hospitalization. It was an excruciating ordeal, but in some ways, the biggest challenge was yet to come.

The treatment had taken away some of the basic functions most people take for granted. Diana had to relearn how to operate her mouth and rebuild the muscles in her tongue. Chewing, eating and swallowing all had to be done differently. Speech had to be relearned as well – the letter S was especially difficult – and required months of diligent practice with a speech therapist and vocal coach to regain verbal fluency and voice strength.

For Diana, who had always been a high achiever and a perfectionist and who had built her successful career in the healthcare industry in no small part thanks to her ability to communicate, merely recapturing the basics of speech – an acceptable outcome for many tongue cancer patients who tend to be much older and sicker – was not enough. Diana wanted her voice back in full. It took months of hard work, but with the loving support of her husband, children and friends as well as a team of dedicated healthcare professionals, she succeeded. 

Today, after a year off from work to take time for herself and reflect, Diana is at the start of a new role in a healthcare startup. She is excited to leverage her expertise and corporate experience to grow and scale the business as well as continuing to serve as a role model for other women in the industry. But as excited as she is to return to her profession, Diana also knows that this time, post-cancer, the balance needs to be different. 

Before cancer, it was all too easy to let work take over, to let the demands (or perceived demands) of her leadership position mean she put her own needs last. Diana’s experience going through cancer treatment and rehabilitation taught her that life is too fragile to do that. She is taking time these days to be more present, to make more time for friendships, to take care of her mind and spirit through exercise and time outdoors with her horse and dogs, to travel and experience the wonder the world has to offer, and most of all, through levity. Cancer, she discovered, taught her how to laugh a whole lot more, and for that she is very grateful.

Health restored, full of energy and optimism and ambition, Diana is excited for this next step of her journey.

 It is never too late to reclaim your voice.