Head, neck cancer patients: Protect your speech, swallowing

Tips for patients being treated for head & neck cancers.

Head, neck cancer patients: Protect your speech, swallowing

Patients who undergo treatment for head and neck cancer are at risk for speaking and swallowing difficulties related to their treatment. The degree of difficulty depends on the site of the cancer and the methods used to treat it.

Patients who continue to swallow, eat, and drink during treatment have better swallowing abilities than those who do not, even long after treatment is complete. The ability to swallow and eat is very important during cancer treatment because good nutrition helps patients fight disease. A speech therapist is someone who can help patients prevent and treat speaking and swallowing difficulties related to head and neck cancer treatment.

The most common treatments of head and neck cancer are surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation. Head and neck cancer patients may receive one, two, or all three of these treatments.


After surgery patients have permanent changes to the structures and muscles of the mouth, throat, and neck. These changes may cause patients to need to learn new techniques for swallowing and speech.

Speech therapists help patients who have had surgery regain strength and control of their speaking and eating muscles after surgery.


Radiation therapy can cause a dry, sore, or painful mouth and throat during radiation. After radiation is complete, it takes time to recover from therapy (weeks to months) and there may be lasting effects such as dry mouth and scarring or tightening of the muscles and skin of the mouth, throat, and neck.

Speech therapists teach patients swallowing exercises to perform during radiation treatment to keep the swallow muscles active and strong. At Sanford speech therapists see patients before treatment begins, as well as during treatment, to provide education and coaching and prevention swallowing difficulties.


A possible side effect of chemotherapy may be a sore, painful mouth, tongue, and throat. The side effects of chemotherapy should peak between 10 – 14 days after treatment and are not permanent.

Patients can help themselves recover from treatment more quickly by following the guidance of their speech therapist.  Patients can also follow these suggestions to help with speech and swallowing during treatment:

  1. Practice swallowing exercises several times each day.
  2.  Avoid spicy and hard or crunchy foods like crackers and chips.
  3. Rinse mouth with a baking soda/salt/water solution or with plain water many times each day, especially after eating (goal is to “swish and spit” at least a quart of water each day).
  4.  Drink lots of water. Carry a water bottle with you all the time so you always have access to water.
  5. Keep swallowing every day during treatment; if even soft foods become too difficult, at least swallow water daily to maintain strength and movement in your swallow muscles.

If you have questions or concerns, contact your speech therapist or your doctor.

Posted In Cancer, Health Information