After treatment for head and neck cancer, you may experience problems speaking or swallowing. These problems are different for every patient based on where your cancer was located, how widespread the cancer was, and what type of treatment you received. Some speech and swallowing problems will go away as your body heals, but others may be more permanent.
Speech and swallowing problems may include:
- Aspiration (food or drink entering the lungs)
- Dry mouth
- Pain when swallowing
- Swallowing many times to clear food from your mouth
How are speech and swallowing problems diagnosed?
Speech-language pathologists (SLPs) are trained experts who specialize in helping you speak and swallow. Your SLP will design a personalized treatment plan designed to improve your quality of life.
To design this plan, your SLP will first have you undergo a barium swallow test. During this test, you will swallow a special substance, called barium, that makes your mouth and throat show up well on an X-ray. Your doctor will take an X-ray video of you drinking and swallowing the dye.
You may also undergo imaging tests to look at how your vocal cords move as you speak. For this test, a specialized camera is placed in your mouth. You will be told to make specific sounds. The camera records the movement in slow motion so it can be analyzed.
Your SLP will look at your test results to determine what problems you have speaking or swallowing. They can then develop an individualized treatment plan.
How are speech and swallowing problems treated?
Your treatment for speech and swallowing problems may include:
- A specialized diet consisting of soft foods or thick drinks that make swallowing easier
- Advice on how to sit or hold your head as you eat to make swallowing easier
- Developing new ways to swallow that make swallowing safe
- Exercises to strengthen muscles and improve your ability to speak or swallow
- External devices to help you speak
- New speaking techniques using the esophagus
Your treatment plan will help you eat, drink, and communicate, improving your quality of life and protecting your health.