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Written by Lynn Kalesh and Irma Gibbons

In 1992, Don Young’s voice began to get hoarse and he thought it was just a cold. He was diagnosed with throat cancer and a malignant node was removed. Two months later his larynx (voice box) was also removed and he received six weeks of radiation treatment, but his cancer recurred. At this point, he underwent a total laryngectomy and was given less than a year to live.

During a 19-hour surgery in 1993, the front and right side, along with part of the left side of his neck was removed. A portion of his small intestine was removed and transplanted in his neck to make a new esophagus. His chest was cut in order to use the chest muscle to wrap around the front of his neck and skin was grafted from the top of his leg to cover this. The transplant was rejected.

Don went back to surgery and a tube was placed in his neck so he could swallow saliva. Another tube was inserted in his stomach for eleven months to allow him to receive food and medicine. When he regained his strength, he underwent a procedure whereby his stomach was pulled up and attached to the back of his throat to make a new esophagus. The passage will not stay open by itself, so every morning he has to dilate the opening by inserting a two-foot flexible tube down his throat for five minutes. This enables him to eat and drink all day. Also, he cannot bend or lie flat to sleep, and can no longer talk and now uses an electro-larynx (hand-held electronic voice box). He is not able to breathe through his nose or mouth; he has a tracheostomy – a hole in his throat that opens directly to his lungs. Because of the very real danger of drowning if water gets into the trach, Don cannot go swimming and must take care while showering. In spite of all this, he has made a miraculous recovery and has been cancer free since 1993.

Don Young could have just given up, but he didn’t. He is the perfect example of making up your mind to survive cancer, then doing it. But the story would not end here. When he began to regain his strength, he desperately wanted to stop others from making the same mistake; he knew his throat cancer was caused by 34 years of a two-pack-a-day smoking habit, which he started at the age of fourteen. Becoming a driving force in the American Cancer Society’s Tobacco School Health program, he has committed himself to educating young people about the dangers of tobacco and speaks to the public at schools and churches. He is relentless in his mission and, along with his wife Kay, volunteers his services to numerous cancer-related services throughout Missouri.

Young coached softball and soccer for 28 years and continues to coordinate the St. Charles County church softball leagues. He is also involved in the church youth group. In addition, Don is a Shriner’s clown. For the past two years he has participated in the Illinois and Missouri state Senior Olympics games, winning 28 medals.

Don Young doesn’t consider himself an exceptional person – just one who has come to understand that his life and the lives of others are worth fighting for.

* Reprinted by permission of Coping Magazine.