Memorial Fund for The Treatment and Research of Head & Neck Cancer
What challenges do patients face?
From a conversation with Barbara Ebersole, MA, CCC-SLP
Senior Speech Pathologist and Manager, Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation, Fox Chase Cancer Center
Clinical Instructor, Department of Otolaryngology-Head and Neck Surgery, Temple School of Medicine
“The effects of treatment often leave head and neck cancer patients feeling isolated and profoundly changed.”
Treatments for head and neck cancer vary depending on size, location and pathology of the cancer, with many requiring a combination of surgery, radiation and chemotherapy. In addition to the potential side effects of any cancer treatment, these patients often endure challenges to basic human functions such as speaking, swallowing and eating.
Life-saving surgeries often require the removal or partial removal of structures required for speech. Patients may have to learn to adapt to speech distortions or the use of an artificial voice box, outcomes that challenge the way they interact with others and the way others see them.
Swallowing ability can also be affected by H&N cancer and its treatment, resulting in a condition called “dysphagia”. Surgery may require removal of structures key to safe and effective swallowing. Radiation and/or chemoradiation can cause damage to the throat muscles and salivary glands, impacting how and what a patient can eat.
Head and neck cancer patients with dysphagia can experience symptoms such as food sticking in the mouth or throat, slow eating, multiple swallows needed per bite/sip, and coughing or choking when eating. Dysphagia leads to a reduction in quality of life, weight loss and can even cause pneumonia and lung damage. Patients’ appetites and sense of taste can be affected as well; eating becomes more time consuming, choices are more limited, and the experience is less enjoyable. Many lose their motivation to eat.
The combined impact of the change in food experience and speaking challenges often leaves head and neck cancer patients feeling isolated and profoundly changed.
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