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Clifford Hughes interview

Friday May 17

A New Voice

Jackie Macadam meets a minister who has overcome the trauma of losing his voice in a battle with cancer.

 

Clifford Hughes

“I rather fear that people ‘out there’ see me, and people like me who have a wide range of communication disabilities, in what I call ‘3-D’. Can’t speak? Must be Deaf, Daft or Drunk! It happens, I promise you.”

The Rev Clifford Hughes is talking to me about his ongoing battle with cancer – a disease that has played a fundamental part in making him the man he is today.

Clifford breathes through a stoma (a hole) in his throat. His larynx was removed around ten years ago when a laryngeal carcinoma was diagnosed, a cancer that brought a shocking and unexpected end to three voice-centred careers, as teacher, singer and preacher.

Clifford had always been a singer – he was a member of the Choir of King’s College Cambridge, then a professional lyric tenor before he entered the Ministry and was called to St Mary’s Church in Haddington.

His cancer was discovered after a member of his congregation, a transplant surgeon, expressed concern about his voice.

“Radiotherapy failed, and I was taken in for a laryngectomy operation. When I came round afterwards I couldn’t even whisper.  My wife, Kathleen was my first visitor. I tried to lean on one elbow and write a greeting: ‘Good Journey?’ And we both broke down and wept. I was in despair. It was, for me, a bereavement. My voice had been my life; I felt that if I can’t communicate – I might as well be dead.

“My Speech and Language Therapist, Gary, was a great encourager and introduced me to a wonderful lady called Peggy who had gone through the same procedure a few years earlier. She spoke with a wonderful West Calder accent and I realised that when I talked again I would still be discernibly me, and not some strange robotic or burping noise.”

“During the time I was learning to speak, my two grandchildren, Calum and Iona, were born. In a sense we learned to speak together and what a joyous experience with lots of laughter that became!”

Clifford now gives talks to health professionals and students and speaks to others who have gone through the same operation.

“All through my learning to cope, I never doubted God’s love for me. I realise now that he was giving me the opportunity to use my ‘sexy new voice’ (in the words of one of the ladies at St Mary’s) to champion the cause of people with communication difficulties, effectively a Hidden Disability.

“One thing I really miss though is not being able to laugh out loud. I believe in the therapeutic value of laughter – it releases endorphins and relieves stress, as well as giving one’s body great gulps of fresh oxygen with every breath. One friend who had been treated for breast cancer challenged me to write a limerick about mine, so I had a go:

From deep down inside my oesophagus
Erupt rumblings and burping cacophonous.
Is it merely a question
Of acute indigestion
Or a plot in the local sarcophagus?
 

* This is an abridged version of the full interview which appears in the June issue of Life and Work. Subscribe to the magazine here