Words used to come easily for Robert Haase, a professional motivational speaker.
But last fall, doctors at Virginia Mason Medical Center in Seattle removed half his tongue due to cancer. Then they reconstructed it with tissue from his forearm.
The Olympia man had to relearn how to talk, and recently began leading business and marketing seminars again.
“Every word I say is painful,” said Haase, 51. “It makes you choose your words more.”
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Haase began feeling pain in his tongue in 2006, and was diagnosed with squamous cell carcinoma two years later.
He’s not a smoker and said he doesn’t fall into the other risk groups for the disease.
“There’s no reason I should have this,” Haase said.
He’s had more than a dozen surgeries, and last fall his doctor told him they needed to remove half his tongue and several lymph nodes. The procedure was called a hemiglossectomy.
“He said, ‘You will never speak the same again,’ ” Haase recalled. “I thought, ‘I’m a public speaker. … It’s like a baseball pitcher losing his throwing arm.’ ”
After the surgery, Haase went through chemotherapy and radiation treatments.
“I had never seen him in such pain,” said his sister Lisa McAlpine. “We all spent time crying, and yet also saying, ‘If anyone can do it, he can.’ ”
Haase went to a speech therapist a few times for some coaching, but he mostly taught himself to talk again.
It wasn’t an easy process, but he said his faith as a Christian helped him believe that everything would be OK.
“The prayers of people and caring — it’s huge,” he said, breaking into tears. “To feel that love and caring is huge. Every day, I’m alive.”
These days, Haase begins his day drinking ice water to help keep the swelling of his tongue down, and create moisture because he can no longer generate saliva.
By noon, he’s usually too tired to do much talking.
He’s lost 60 pounds and nearly all of his ability to taste.
“I loved wine,” he said. “I loved the nuances of it. Now it burns.”
But Haase said the experience has helped change his focus to the important things in life: his three daughters; his hobbies (he likes photography and painting); and the natural gift he was given, which is using words to inspire others.
He has maintained a blog about his cancer and has heard from people around the world who have stumbled upon it.
“My dad is an amazing man, and I don’t know how someone can go through such a hard experience and look at so much of the good,” said Holly Haase, 19, of Tumwater. “He’s a really strong guy and he’s a fighter. He handled it better than anyone else could have.”