Patient seeks minimally invasive solution when a hoarse voice turns into a vocal cord cancer diagnosis

Semirra Bayan and patient James O

Toward the end of 2017, James O’Malley noticed a difference in his health, particularly his throat. He went to his primary care doctor, who diagnosed him with acid reflux. O’Malley changed his diet but saw little improvement.

Frustrated with the lack of results, the Palos Heights, Ill. resident decided to go to the University of Chicago Medicine at the recommendation of his father-in-law. He initially met with gastroenterologist Robert Kavitt, MD, MPH. After one look at the throat, Kavitt told O'Malley he did not have acid reflux after all. Rather, he had vocal cord cancer.

Kavitt referred O’Malley to Semirra Bayan, MD, a laryngeal surgeon, who diagnosed O’Malley with a T1a squamous cell carcinoma of the left true vocal cord, a type of early vocal cord cancer, and dysplasia of his right true vocal cord.

O’Malley, who has been smoke-free for 12 years, has always had a hoarse voice, but never considered the cause could be cancer.

“I immediately wanted to know what the next step was so I could tackle this,” O’Malley said.

James OMalley
James O'Malley

Bayan has a subspecialty in treating early vocal cord cancers, and she is one of the only specialists in the region who uses an innovative procedure with a potassium titanyl phosphate (KTP) laser. The KTP laser is also known as a "photoangiolytic" laser, meaning it targets the blood vessels of the cancer while preserving the healthy tissue underneath the cancer. Under a microscope, the laser gradually removes the cancer layer-by-layer until healthy tissue is reached. This allows for maximum preservation of the normal, healthy vocal cord tissue and can be an effective alternative to standard radiation therapy.

“While radiation therapy is effective, it treats both the diseased and non-diseased parts of the vocal cords and surrounding structures, impacting tissue that is healthy,” Bayan said. “Radiation treatment is something that can only be used once in a part of the body, meaning it often cannot be repeated if additional cancers arise in that area. The laser can be used multiple times.”

I felt that Dr. Bayan truly cared about me, and I could tell that she was very passionate about what she does.

To be a candidate for the KTP laser procedure, patients must have an early vocal cord cancer, a stage 1 or 2 cancer that does not extend beyond the vocal cord muscle or into the lymph nodes of the neck, among other criteria, Bayan said.

Bayan determined O’Malley was a perfect candidate for the KTP laser, and he decided to move forward with treatment.

“I felt that Dr. Bayan truly cared about me, and I could tell that she was very passionate about what she does. I didn’t feel like just another patient to her, and that was really important to me,” O’Malley said.

O’Malley's outpatient procedure took place on Dec. 27, 2017, and he was able to return home the same day. About four months after his surgery, O’Malley’s voice was back to normal, and he has been cancer-free ever since.

From start to finish, O’Malley had a positive experience at UChicago Medicine with his entire care team.

“I made a great bond with not only Dr. Bayan, but also my anesthesiologist, Dr. John Erickson. We had inside jokes, and I was comfortable and confident the entire time thanks to them,” he said. “If I can help just one person by sharing my story, that’s all that matters to me. This procedure has changed my life, and I am forever thankful for Dr. Bayan and the University of Chicago Medicine.”

dr. bayan portrait

Semirra Bayan, MD

Laryngeal surgeon Semirra Bayan, MD, provides comprehensive treatment for disorders of the vocal cords. Dr. Bayan specializes in early glottic (vocal cord) cancer and pre-cancerous vocal cord lesions, vocal cord papilloma, vocal cord paralysis, voice disorders, and laryngeal stenosis. She also works with performers and professional vocalists.

Learn more about Dr. Bayan