More than 53,000 people are diagnosed with head and neck cancer in the U.S. each year. The treatments for it can affect someone for the rest of their life. Many who live with the condition claim it doesn’t receive the attention and funding it deserves.
Now, a woman is out to change that. Her motto is “live and help live.”
"We're gonna cue up,” said Sherry Carlisle Smith, speaking on a Facebook live stream. "Guys, get ready. We've got an exciting program this morning with Sherry's Saturday Voice. We are coming to you live this morning from Miller Piano Specialists. If this broadcast is not for you, it’s for someone.”
Smith read the words written by photographer Debra Sheridan. With the live stream, she acts as Sheridan’s voice.
On a morning shoot, Sheridan photographed Gary Talley of the classic rock band, The Box Tops.
"She's an expert. She's the best,” Talley smiled.
Sheridan has challenges directing her subjects.
"I lost my voice in 2014,” she said, speaking through an electrolaynx. "Verbal communication is not possible while I'm photographing, so I do a lot of demonstrating to my subject."
After being diagnosed with tonsil cancer, Sheridan’s esophagus, trachea, and vocal cords were damaged by treatment.
"People say to me, ‘Well, I'm so glad you don't have a real cancer like breast cancer.’ I'm like, ‘Wait a minute. This isn't a real cancer?’" she said. "Cancer is cancer.”
Sheridan said struggles with speaking, eating, and breathing are enough to stop many people with head and neck cancer from going in public. To get awareness and resources for people living with head and neck cancer, she started the Faces of HNC non-profit and launched a weekly live stream.
"Head and neck cancer is under-supported,” Smith said in the live stream. “It's just not important enough to people to direct their cancer dollars. The despair and high suicide rate is my call to action."
Smith runs Miller Piano Specialists in Franklin, Tennessee. A friend of Sheridan’s, she live streams Smith’s Saturday Voice on the Faces of HNC Facebook every Saturday morning.
"I didn't write these scripts,” Smith said. “These are by Debra Sheridan. I'm from Kentucky. These would not end up like this! I am the advocate. I am the voice."
Years ago, before many treatments, Sheridan took a ride through the country. A video she took is the last recording of her natural voice.
"When I lost my voice, I found my eye,” she explained.
Taking such a scenic drive just before those treatments is so like Sheridan. No matter how hard life gets, she finds the beauty in it. It's easy to see the good when you have a friend like Smith.
"She said, ‘I don't know why I'm here,’” Smith said, remembering a dinner conversation with Sheridan from years ago. “I looked at her and said, ‘I do. You have the ability to help others. You weren't put on this earth to get cancer and die.’ I don't feel I met Debra by coincidence."
"Everybody needs their own Sherry,” Sheridan said. “I think we all need an advocate for those times we don't have the ability to speak for ourselves."