Strategies for Success

Here are some of those recommendations and other steps you and your loved one should consider before the start of treatment to optimize outcomes.

Evaluation by a speech or swallowing therapist

Some patients may need to have their ability to speak and swallow assessed pre-treatment (baseline).

Many people with head and neck cancer have a compromised ability to speak and/or swallow even before the start of treatment. For example, researchers evaluated the ability of patients with oropharyngeal cancer to swallow at baseline and found that most patients had some form of swallowing disorder: 67 percent were not able to completely retract their tongues, and 40 percent had delayed swallowing. Approximately 20 percent of the people with oropharyngeal cancer could not eat a normal diet at baseline.

A speech/swallowing therapist is often an integral member of the head and neck cancer care team and may provide essential recommendations at various times during your loved one’s cancer journey.

A speech/swallowing therapist may evaluate the patient’s ability to speak and swallow prior to, during and after treatment. The speech/swallowing therapist can also provide your friend or family member with recommendations of best practices to preserve the ability to swallow, such as best oral hygiene practices. In addition, the speech therapist will recommend swallowing exercises, which can be practiced throughout treatment to best maintain and improve the ability to swallow.

It is likely that you and your patient will work frequently with the speech/swallowing therapist during the cancer journey.

Assessment by a registered nutritionist

The NCCN Guidelines for Head and Neck Cancers recommend that a registered nutritionist may need to assess whether a patient’s nutritional needs are being met at baseline and periodically throughout the course of the cancer journey.

The nutritionist can provide you and your loved one with strategies for treatment-associated side effects that may disrupt eating through the course of treatment. If the nutritionist determines that your loved one is not getting adequate nutrition at any time, then it may be necessary to receive nourishment intravenously or through a feeding tube.

Find a support group

You may consider attending a support group with your loved one. Many people with cancer benefit from advice on navigating their journey from people who have had similar experiences.

Find counseling services or a psychologist

During the cancer journey, you or your loved one may experience emotional distress. Researchers evaluated the psychological well-being of people with cancer and their caregivers and found that 30 percent of the people with cancer and 40 percent of caregivers experienced anxiety. Even over just a few weeks, counseling services can decrease the level of anxiety among people with cancer and their caregivers. To get the best results from counseling, researchers recommend that the patient and caregiver be treated together. Therefore, it is helpful to identify a counselor or therapist early in the cancer journey, selecting a person with whom you and your loved one feel comfortable. Counseling services do not need to be limited to dealing with feelings of emotional discomfort. For example, counseling can teach you active coping and problem-solving skills that help with caregiving.
The support of friends and family was wonderful and emotionally overwhelming in a positive way. Barry J. (tongue cancer survivor)