Harvey Swartz recalled when he woke up from a 14-hour surgery August 2014, he felt like Darth Vader without his armor.
And like the Sith warrior from Star Wars, Swartz had no voice.
Swartz lost 75 percent of his tongue to cancer. Cedars-Sinai surgeons rebuilt a tongue out of donor tissue from his right arm.
When he went under the anesthesia, he thought doctors would be taking out the tumor. Instead, when he awoke, he felt as if he lost his soul.
"I had tubes sticking out everywhere when I woke up, my new tongue was swollen out of my mouth, I could only communicate through an iPad. It was like being hit by a freight train, totally disorienting and traumatic," said the former head of security for The Recording Academy.
"I was at square zero and I had to find my way up,” he said.
About 10 months later, after weeks of traditional, but frustrating speech therapy, the Long Beach resident finally found his voice.
And, it came from an unusual source: a street-performing ventriloquist in Santa Monica.
“It just dawned on me, that if this guy could do a performance like that, maybe I could do something like that, too," said Swartz. "If he could speak with his mouth closed and the words were so clear, maybe I could, too."
So, Swartz approached the ventriloquist after the show.
The two began an email and text exchange.
"He emailed me suggestions and exercises, things to do like saying the alphabet with my mouth closed, and saying certain words over and over again," said Swartz. "I tried to stop using my tongue so much and speak from the diaphragm and back of my mouth.”
The technique worked.
After six months of diligently practicing with the exercises, Swartz could communicate again, without the help of an iPad.
Swartz is the featured speaker at Cancer Support Community Redondo Beach's annual Celebrate Wellness event on Sunday, June 23.
Through the support of the nonprofit, Swartz found the strength to learn to speak with his new tongue.
Following his July 2014 cancer diagnosis and subsequent surgery, Swartz sought solace in CSCRB’s general cancer support group run by co-founder Anne Clary.
The group helped him through grueling depression and fits of anger. It helped him regain confidence and gave him back the will to live, he said.
“I wasn’t in a good place," said Swartz. "I was severely depressed, I didn’t know what to do with myself."
In addition to learning how to speak with a new tongue, Swartz had most of his lower left teeth removed a week before his surgery to facilitate the radiation he had to endure for a month after the operation.
He ate through a tube for four months and then lived on soup for another five months.
It wasn't easy, he said. But, it helped to be around other cancer survivors.
“There was just no joy in my life anymore," said Swartz. "So, to suddenly be with a group of people who understand you, it means a lot. I am thankful they were there. Through the years, they helped me rebuild my confidence and my personality. It was a hard road back.”
Swartz said CSCRB was his last stop. His medical insurance didn't cover psychiatry, so his nutritionist recommended CSCRB's free programs.
The cancer support community became a second home for Swartz. His daughter Jennifer, now 19, attended the Teen Connect Group to help deal with the impact of her father's illness.
Jennifer is getting ready for college and plans to become a speech therapist and help others like her father.
“I told her about my experience with the ventriloquist, and she may incorporate that into her profession later on,” he said.
Swartz is currently cancer free, but still suffers from pain in his neck, shoulders and back. His strength is not what it used to be. He said he is unable to return to his job, but also ineligible for federal disability because his case "is not terminal."
Swartz continues to attend the CSCRB group meetings every Wednesday, as he had for four years.
Only now, he's on the giving end of advice.
“I listen and ... try to provide some insight, that you can come back," he said, adding "you can't have everything.
"I wanted to be the person I was before the surgery, and that wasn’t going to happen, I wasn’t going to be that guy."
The cancer forced Swartz to reevaluate his relationships with family and friends, he said. And, he's glad he's not "that guy."
During his speech Sunday at Celebrate Wellness, Swartz said he will pay homage to the CSCRB's many free programs that helped him and his family.
"They helped me help myself," said Swartz. "Sometimes wellness is a decision you have to make for yourself."
Swartz said he is still fighting the pain and the anger, but he's hopeful.
"I certainly never wanted to get cancer, but in a way, I am grateful for the journey it took me on.”
Celebrate Wellness takes place June 23 at 3:30 p.m. at the South Coast Botanic Garden on the Palos Verdes Peninsula. For more information visit www.cancersupportredondobeach.org or call (310) 376-3550.