Head and Neck Cancer Swallowing Disorders SymptomsPatients with head and neck cancer may notice a variety of symptoms including throat pain, ear/jaw pain, feeling of a “lump” in the throat, voice change, and difficulty swallowing. Swallowing symptoms including feeling like food or pills stick in the throat, liquids going down the wrong pipe, increased mealtimes, weight loss, and needing to drink more liquids than usual during meals. Cancer diagnosis is made by physicians and requires imaging such as CT or PET scans, and a tissue biopsy. Once a cancer diagnosis is confirmed, patients may see a speech-language pathologist to evaluate their swallowing.
Following cancer treatment, patients may have the same dysphagia symptoms mentioned above—foods lodging in the throat, choking with liquids, and difficulty swallowing pills. Patients may also notice weight loss/difficulty maintaining weight, or recurrent lung infections. However, it is also important to know that some cancer treatments can affect the sensory function of the throat, so patients may not experience typical dysphagia symptoms, or may even feel they do not have a swallowing problem. Because of these sensory changes, following radiation or chemoradiation it is important to be evaluated yearly by a speech-language pathologist to identify changes early and allow for prompt treatment.
Diagnosis of Head and Neck Cancer Swallowing DisordersEvaluations include either a flexible endoscopic evaluation of swallowing (FEES) or modified barium swallow study (MBS).
Learn more about our specialized chemoradiation dysphagia program and how our specialized SLPs care for your swallowing before, during, and after your cancer treatment.
Treatment of swallowing problems depends heavily on underlying deficits, which will be determined by an evaluation. Depending on the nature of the swallowing problem, patients may be treated with a combination of swallowing therapy, dietary and texture modifications, swallowing strategies, and surgery such as esophageal dilations.