Fall 2018

Never speechless

Tongue cancer took away Katy Laing’s ability to speak, but not her ability to communicate

Imagine what it would be like to lose your tongue, literally, as Katy Laing did when she was diagnosed with stage 4 tongue cancer at age 48. Laing was already well-acquainted with cancer, having fought lymphoma as a teen and thyroid cancer years later. 

But losing the ability to speak, and to be understood, was very challenging.


“She really had a lot to say!” recalls speech-language pathologist Heather Erickson, M.S., who was part of Laing’s University of Minnesota Health care team after her tongue surgery. “And she was absolutely upbeat.”

One of Laing’s friends introduced her to a Boogie Board, an ewriter that made it easy for her to converse by writing. She’d write on the board and then press a button to erase, and then write and erase again. She took it everywhere, from the grocery store to the ICU.

“It changed her life,” says her lifelong best friend, Susan Robinson. “We watched it empower her.”

Laing and Robinson soon decided to donate boards to help other patients.

“We presented the boards to Dr. Bevan Yueh [head of the U Medical School’s Department of Otolaryngology and Laing’s M Health physician],” Robinson says. “Katy took great pride in that day. It was beautiful.”

When Laing passed away last year, Robinson and a group of their friends created a memorial fund to purchase more Boogie Boards, which are now given to all head and neck cancer patients going into surgery at the U’s Clinics and Surgery Center. The boards are adorned with a specially designed sticker that says:

Katy Speaks. She wrote. We understood.