Managing Treatments

Speech Therapy for Head and Neck Cancer Patients: What You Need to Know

Speech therapy for head and neck cancer patients can help ward off long-term problems with your voice and ability to swallow.

Speech therapy for head and neck cancer patients is an important part of your cancer care plan before, during and after treatment. Depending on the location of your cancer and treatment plan, you may notice changes in your voice, speech, jaw mobility or ability to swallow, which can affect both your ability to communicate and your quality of life.

Fortunately, speech therapy for head and neck cancer patients can help reduce the impact of these side effects and, in some cases, prevent these problems.

Why Is Therapy Necessary?

Since these cancers affect your throat, salivary glands and mouth, the muscles in these areas may become weakened or scarred by any of the treatments you have, whether it’s surgery, radiation or chemotherapy. When muscles become weak and immobile, they’re harder to use. For example, your voice may change in pitch or may sound harsh. You may have difficultly chewing or opening your mouth. Food may also stick in your throat.

Addressing these problems early can prevent long-term problems, according to the American Society of Clinical Oncology. When you keep using the muscles in your head and neck, you’re better able to maintain speech and swallowing function. In fact, research has found that patients who received speech and swallowing therapy prior to radiation therapy were able to maintain muscle structure and function better.

In addition, speech and swallowing therapy helps maintain your quality of life by ensuring you get proper nutrition and warding off any long-term problems such as dehydration, infection and the need for a feeding tube.

Finding the Right Therapist

A speech therapist or swallowing therapist is member of your cancer care team who helps you maintain or regain your normal speech and swallowing function. You may meet with a therapist shortly after your diagnosis or before your start treatment. Your oncologist or nurse navigator can connect you to the right therapist. Talk to your healthcare team if you notice any changes in your speech or swallowing ability.

What to Expect

During your first meeting, your therapist will review your medical history and discuss symptoms you may be experiencing and your cancer treatment plan. She will evaluate your speech and swallowing function, identifying areas of weakness and what may be causing any difficulties you’re experiencing. For example, she may watch how you swallow using an endoscope (a flexible tube that is passed through the nose into the throat) or take a slow-motion video of your voice box to view your vocal chords.

Based on the evaluation, she will develop a plan to address your specific needs related to your speech, voice and/or your ability to swallow. Working one-on-one with you, she’ll recommend specific mouth, neck and swallowing exercises and techniques designed to improve muscle function. You’ll regularly visit your therapist during and after treatment to help ensure you’re doing the exercises properly and maintaining good speech and swallowing function.

Remember, while speech therapy for head and neck cancer patients may seem like another hassle, it’s an integral part of your treatment plan. Talk to your doctor or cancer care team about your concerns and the options available to you.

Every year, UVA Cancer Center treats more than 200 new patients with head and neck cancer. Voice and swallowing therapy is just one of the many resources available.

Learn More
Christine Yu