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Roger Ebert

Cancer took his ability to speak, but it could never take his voice.

by Laura Shipp

For over two decades, celebrities have entrusted Coping® to tell the world about their personal experience with cancer. We are proud to present this exclusive interview from our archives and hope that it will inspire and encourage all who read it. This article was originally published in Coping with Cancer magazine, September/October 2011.

Celebrity Cancer Survivor

Film critic Roger Ebert wears a silicone prosthesis over his lower face and neck for the “Roger’s Office” segment of the television show Ebert Presents at the Movies.
(AP Photo/Ebert Productions, David Rotter)

When America’s movie critic Roger Ebert was first diagnosed with thyroid cancer back in 2002, he anticipated a simple surgery with a quick and complete recovery. And that’s what he got.

Until his cancer returned. This time, in addition to numerous radiation treatments, Roger underwent surgery to remove cancerous growths from his salivary glands in 2003 and later his jaw in 2006. Unexpected complications from this last surgery, and subsequent failed attempts at facial reconstruction, left him without a lower jaw – unable to eat or to speak.

It’s easy to see how anyone would be devastated after having endured as much as Roger Ebert has during his long, arduous fight with a cancer that almost took his life. But that’s not Roger’s way.

Though he hasn’t been able to speak since 2006, Roger has never stopped communicating – or critiquing. In the beginning, he spoke through Chaz, his wife of nearly 20 years, using a rudimentary type of sign language only the two of them understood. He now uses special text-to-speech software, old-fashioned pen and paper, and of course, the magic of the Internet to get his words across.

“By throwing myself into the Internet, I found a new way to communicate.”

It is through a series of email conversations that I am able to interview Roger for Coping® magazine. Here, he opens up about how he is able to hold on to his optimism despite the challenges he still faces.

Your battle with cancer has been an undeniably difficult journey. What aspects of this experience have you found the most challenging?
During the course of my recovery from three surgeries, it became clear to me that I would not speak, eat, or drink again. This realization didn’t happen all at once, but it changed everything in the way I lived. Luckily, as a film critic I could still see movies and write about them, so I resolved to go right ahead and do that. I also started a blog (blogs.suntimes.com/ebert). By throwing myself into the Internet, I found a new way to communicate.

Despite everything you have been through, you still exhibit so much joy. How have you been able to maintain your optimism?
I don’t have pain, and since 2006, at least, I have been cancer-free. Those are two excellent reasons for joy! It helps that I am supported by a loving wife and family, and that I love my work.

Do you have days when you are sad, when you miss the life you had before cancer?
Yes, but I throw myself into the moment. I keep busy. I review 250 movies a year. I read. I don’t sit around and brood.

Tell me about your relationship with your wife, Chaz. What has it meant to you to have her by your side through everything?
It has made all of the difference. She was there every day for me. How could I have gone through this alone? In the hospital, when I was ready to function again, she brought a DVD player and a new movie she thought I might like (The Queen), and I felt compelled to review it. Then I was back in business.

How would you complete this sentence? Having cancer has taught me that ...
Having cancer has reminded me of something I once heard, that if we don’t die first of something else, we will all die of cancer. We can, however, fight it and hope to have more happy and productive years. We haven’t been singled out.

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This article was published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, September/October 2011.