Legendary Film Critic Roger Ebert Speechless After Jaw Cancer, Not Silenced


The March issue of Esquire magazine features 67-year-old legendary film critic Roger Ebert, who has been unable to speak since 2006 since he underwent surgery for jaw cancer, but who still remains positive and active in the film industry.

Ebert communicates with a Chicago Sun-Times movie reviewer through a combination of a special text-to-speech software, sign language, and traditional pen and paper. He also good-heartedly posed for the cover photo, showing his distorted face accompanied by a smile in his eyes. During his interview, he wrote “There is no need to pity me…Look how happy I am.”

Mr. Ebert’s medical journey began in 2002 when he was diagnosed with papillary thyroid cancer and had the malignant gland removed. The cancer then spread to his salivary glands in 2003 and finally to his jaw in 2005. Less than one month after surgery to remove part of his jaw bone, Ebert was hospitalized after his carotid artery burst near the surgery site, a complication of radiation treatment. He required a tracheostomy to help him breathe which led to the total loss of his voice.


In addition to losing his ability to speak, Roger Ebert also has lost the ability to eat or drink and uses a feeding tube for nutrition. According to an interview in 2007, he does not miss the activity of eating or drinking, but does miss the camaraderie of dining with friends.

Over the years, doctors have attempted reconstructive surgery on Ebert’s jaw and throat by using bone, tissue and skin from his back, arm and legs. Unfortunately, each of these was unsuccessful, and has left him scarred and weak. He has undergone physical rehabilitation and hip surgery to regain strength due to the loss of muscle mass and bone fractures. He told Esquire that the surgeries were so difficult that he refuses to make any more attempts to regain his face or voice.

Thyroid cancer is a malignant growth of the thyroid gland. There are about 37,000 new cases each year in the United States according to the National Cancer Institute. It is actually more likely to occur in females than in men. Although Mr. Ebert has revealed that he is a recovering alcoholic who quit drinking in 1979, alcohol is not known to be a risk factor in the development of thyroid cancer.

Papillary cancer, the type that Mr. Ebert had, is the most common and typically the least aggressive, although the older the patient, the more aggressive the cancer appears to be. Symptoms include cough, difficulty swallowing, neck swelling, hoarseness or voice changes. Treatment usually involves surgery to remove the entire thyroid gland and radiation therapy; chemotherapy is only effective for about a third of patients. Thyroid hormone replacement therapy is required for the rest of life.