Swallowing Therapy: How Can it Help Cancer Patients?

Swallowing therapy is often necessary for patients with head and neck cancer who undergo surgery or radiation since they frequently encounter difficulties with swallowing due to treatment. The jaw, tongue, lips, and throat muscles can all be impacted by treatment for head and neck cancers — including cancers of the throat, larynx, nose, sinuses, and mouth — which makes getting food down strained and painful. Working with a speech pathologist, however, can help individuals preserve as well as rehabilitate the affected areas and recover normal function through swallowing therapy.

Swallowing therapy involves rehabilitating the affected areas and recovering normal function.
Swallowing therapy involves rehabilitating the affected areas and recovering normal function.

The first hurdle, in many cases, is regaining a desire to eat. Food can taste differently in the months after treatment, and the alternating challenges of dry mouth and thick saliva or phlegm can cause choking. It is important to remember that this process is like training for a marathon – and with work and time, things will get easier.

After reviewing the anatomy and physiology of swallowing with their therapist, patients learn range of motion and strengthening exercises with programs designed to help them in these areas:

  • Opening and closing their mouth
  • Range of motion and strengthening of the tongue
  • Strengthening of the throat muscles
  • Using different strategies for safe swallowing
  • Learning which foods and preparation techniques work best when dealing with swallowing issues
  • Seeking support from family and friends at the supermarket, in the kitchen, and at the table to make shopping, cooking, and eating enjoyable again

In addition to addressing swallowing difficulties, patients should also seek out a speech pathologist if their speaking ability is impacted by radiation or surgery. At Dana-Farber, these clinicians help patients regain the confidence and comfort they need to make a full recovery.

Learn more from the Head and Neck Cancer Treatment Center at Dana-Farber.