What is head and neck cancer?

Head and Neck Cancer

Head and neck cancer: Overview

Head and neck cancer is the rapid growth of abnormal cells that usually starts in the mouth, nose, or throat area. These cancers can spread to nearby lymph nodes or organs, or to distant areas of the body. Most head and neck cancers are linked to tobacco or alcohol use or infection with human papillomavirus (HPV).

Treatment for head and neck cancer depends on what type of cancer you have and how far it has spread. You may need surgery to remove the cancer. Other treatments include radiation, chemotherapy, immunotherapy, or targeted therapy. Sometimes several types of treatments are needed.

Cancer treatments can make you feel very tired and sick to your stomach and may cause vomiting and diarrhea. Treatments can also make it hard to chew, swallow, or even talk. Your care team can help. Your doctor may also have you work with a dietitian or a speech and swallowing therapist.

How can cancer treatments affect speech and swallowing?

Cancer treatment to the head and neck can cause some uncomfortable side effects. Chemotherapy or radiation of the head or neck can affect how well you can swallow or speak. The effects are more common in the days and weeks after treatment. But sometimes these changes can be permanent.

Surgery for head or neck cancer may also cause long-term changes in the way you eat, drink, and speak.

Cancer treatments can affect your sense of taste, which can make eating difficult. You may get a dry mouth, a cough, or a sore and swollen throat.

If you have chemotherapy or radiation, you may have other side effects that can affect how you speak and eat. These side effects can be mild or severe. They include:

  • Swelling and redness in the lining of the mouth (stomatitis).
  • A yeast infection in the mouth (thrush or candida).
  • Tightness of the jaw.

If the side effects are so severe that you can't eat, you can get nutrients through a feeding tube. And speech therapy or special exercises or equipment can help if you're having trouble with your tongue or vocal cords.

Coping with side effects can be a challenge. But there are many things you can do at home to make your mouth and throat feel better.

Dealing with trouble swallowing or eating from cancer treatment

Coping with side effects from cancer treatment can be a challenge. But there are many things you can do at home to make your mouth and throat feel better.

  • Try to think of food as medicine.

    It's part of your treatment. You need plenty of calories and protein to get better. Get extra protein by adding plain, low-cost protein powder to smoothies, shakes, breakfast drinks, or nutritional drinks (such as Ensure or Boost).

  • Eat foods you like, but be aware that your sense of taste may change.

    After you recover, you may not want to eat the same foods. Experiment with new or different foods.

  • Try softer foods.

    If your mouth is sore or you have trouble swallowing, soft foods can be easier to eat. Try foods like cooked cereals, scrambled eggs, cottage cheese, tender chicken, flaky fish, mashed potatoes, or even baby food, which comes in many flavors. Soft, moist foods tend to be easiest to swallow.

  • Stay away from spicy or acidic foods if they hurt.

    And try foods at different temperatures to find out the way you like it.

  • Make a rinse to keep your mouth from getting dry.

    Stir together 1 tsp of salt, 1 tsp of baking soda, and 4 cups of water. Use a small amount to rinse your mouth 4 to 6 times each day. Spit out the rinse. Don't swallow it.

  • Don't use a mouthwash (or any other over-the-counter rinse) that contains alcohol.

    These can dry out your mouth or cause more pain. Ask your doctor about other oral gels, lubricants, substitute saliva, and mouthwashes that you might use.

  • Drink plenty of fluids.

    This can help prevent dehydration. Drinking through a straw may help with pain.

  • Practice good oral hygiene.

    Use a very soft toothbrush to brush your teeth. You could also use a soft cloth. When your mouth is dry, you are more likely to get tooth decay or have other dental problems. Try to see your dentist at the start of your cancer treatments.

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The content above contains general health information provided by Healthwise, Incorporated, and reviewed by its medical experts. This content should not replace the advice of your healthcare provider. Not all treatments or services described are offered as services by us. For recommended treatments, please consult your healthcare provider.