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Sheltering Arms Blog

Head and Neck Cancer: How a Speech Therapist Can Help

Posted on: September 5, 2018 by Robert Moss

By: Taylor Culley, Speech-Language Pathologist

Head and neck cancer is a comprehensive term for cancers involving the tissues and organs of the head and neck including the throat, tongue, tonsils, lips, mouth, salivary glands, larynx (voice box), and nasal cavity. Treatment for head and neck cancer frequently involves surgery, radiation, and/or chemotherapy.

The muscles used in swallowing often become weak, which can affect their ability to move and function properly. These muscle changes are associated with cancer and their related treatments; they can occur immediately or months to years after treatments are completed. Symptoms of dysphagia, the medical term for difficulty swallowing, include:

  • A sensation of food being caught in the throat
  • Food going down the “wrong pipe”
  • Trouble moving food around in the mouth
  • Throat clearing or coughing with drinking
  • Foods or liquids escaping from the nose when swallowing

Without intervention by a speech language pathologist, these symptoms can lead to more complicated health problems, such as pneumonia. Prophylactic exercises throughout treatment for head and neck cancer have been shown to help preserve the strength of swallowing muscles. The speech pathologist will establish an appropriate home exercise regimen to implement throughout treatment. Additionally, a visit with a speech pathologist will provide education specific to your impairments.

Visit your speech pathologist if:

  • You are about to start, in the midst of, or have completed treatment for head and neck cancer (any combination of surgery, radiation, and/or chemotherapy)
  • You are having difficulty eating and/or swallowing
  • You are having difficulty with your voice and/or speech
  • You notice changes in your ability to perform the exercises/maneuvers on your home exercise program

It is recommended that, no matter what, patients who are participating in intervention for head and neck cancer continue to use their muscles to eat and drink to the best of their ability. This will improve a patient’s chance of maintaining a normal diet and optimizing function following treatment. The objective of prescribed exercise is to prevent vital muscles from weakening and losing their function during the discomfort of treatment.

Sheltering Arms offers a support group that is open to any patient or caregiver who is preparing to begin, currently receiving, or finished with treatment for head and neck cancer. The purpose of this group is to provide education, share experiences, provide advice, and meet other individuals impacted by head and neck cancer. Meetings are held the second Wednesday of each month – click here to learn more.