Speaking From Experience : Couple warn youths against smoking and help victims of larynx cancer readjust to life with a mechanical voice.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Jerry Robertson lost his voice three years ago when he got cancer.

"Every morning I wake up, I'm madder than hell," said Robertson, who had his larynx removed and communicates with a mechanical device that makes him sound like a robot.

Robertson, 48, of Van Nuys could have surrendered to the handicap and become a hermit. But instead, he chose to speak to high school and elementary classes about the dangers of smoking--the primary cause of larynx cancer.

Last year, he and his wife, Sherri, established a monthly support group for laryngectomees--the New Voice Club of the Valleys. The group helps victims resume normal contact with the public.

"All of a sudden, you don't have a voice," said Sherri Robertson, "and there's a terrible depression that comes with that. But we show them that they can go on with their lives."

Leslie Knudsen did. After smoking two packs of cigarettes a day for 20 years, she lost her voice four years ago.

Knudsen admits that she sometimes gets depressed about her condition, but still works as an accountant in Studio City and dates frequently.

"The companionship of the group makes you get out and do something," said Knudsen. "I'm pretty much all together now."

According to the American Cancer Society, about 6,000 people lose their voice annually from larynx cancer. Of the 150 laryngectomees in the Valley, Sherri Robertson said, several dozen come to the monthly meetings. Annual dues are $10.

"Usually, they come with their spouse," said Sherri Robertson, "because this is a difficult thing for the whole family."

For Jerry Robertson, dealing with the public has been a major problem. Before the surgery, Robertson installed shower doors at people's homes. But many potential customers didn't welcome his new voice.

"I had people who absolutely wouldn't open the door," he said. "It scared them."

Robertson said he can't order a pizza by phone because people think it's some kind of prank, and he can't attend parties because nobody will hear him above the loud noise.

"I went to the circus recently, and just sat there for two hours without saying a word," he said. "A lot of times, it's just easier not to talk at all."

Sherri Robertson said the disease might be tougher for women because the sound produced by the mechanical device is deep and masculine. The device uses an attachment to pick up the vibrations in a person's throat or mouth.

"Take a woman who is pretty and sexy and has a great voice," said Sherri Robertson, "and then this happens. Even if she learns how to talk, it won't be with a feminine voice."

Knudsen, however, said she has overcome that limitation.

"I am sure there are some who will never be interested in me because of my physical deformity," Knudsen said, "but a lot of people wouldn't be interested in me if I was perfect."

Jerry Robertson, who smoked three packs of cigarettes a day, enjoys talking to high school and elementary classes. He points out that although most laryngectomees are senior citizens, the cancer can strike at any age.

"I know a 15-year-old who lost his voice," Robertson said recently to a high school continuation class in Tujunga. At first, the students seemed a little shocked by Robertson's new voice, but they quickly warmed up and listened carefully to his warnings.

He then polled the class to see how many smoke. Many raised their hands.

"I haven't had a cigarette since the operation," he told them. "I just lost the addiction right there."

Where and When

What: New Voice Club of the Valleys.

Location: 6650 Van Nuys Blvd. (rear entrance)

Hours: 11 a.m. third Saturday of each month.

Call: (818) 785-8140.

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