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Strategies for Success

Your ability to speak and swallow should be assessed pretreatment (baseline).

  • Evaluation by a speech pathologist: You may experience a change in your voice or ability to speak during the course of treatment or even after the completion of treatment. Therefore, many head and neck cancer patients are advised to see speech pathologists. For example, 34 to 70 percent of patients who received radiation therapy developed a speech impairment post-treatment.

A speech pathologist is often an integral person in your cancer care team and may provide essential recommendations at various times during your cancer journey.

Evaluation by a speech pathologist may be done prior to treatment, especially to obtain baseline measurements of your ability to speak and swallow as well as to assess the likelihood of your experiencing side-effects in your voice or ability to speak as a result of your treatment. The speech pathologist can also provide you with recommendations to preserve your ability to swallow, which may include changes in your oral hygiene routine. In addition, you can learn swallowing exercises and practice them during therapy to maintain your ability to swallow.

It is likely that you will work with your speech pathologist frequently during your cancer journey; speech pathologists also often work with patients during rehabilitation.

  • Evaluation by a registered nutritionist: Patients with head and neck cancer are often undernourished before initiating treatment,which may be due to complications associated with the tumor. Many patients with head and neck cancer may experience weight loss during the course of the disease.

Therefore, a registered nutritionist may assess your nutritional needs at your baseline and periodically throughout the course of your cancer journey. The registered nutritionist can provide you with strategies for treatment-associated side effects that may disrupt eating through the course of treatment. If your nutritionist determines that you are currently not getting adequate nutrition at any time during the course of your disease, you may temporarily receive nourishment intravenously or through a feeding tube.

  • Evaluation by a Dentist: Radiation therapy has been associated with an increase in cavities and bone loss.

Prior to treatment, you should have a dental evaluation. If you are likely to receive radiation therapy, then prophylactic fluoride treatment should be done to protect your teeth during treatment and for the rest of your life, which can decrease the likelihood of developing cavities.

  • Find a support group: You may consider identifying a support group for you and/or your family members. Patients diagnosed with head and neck cancer have been found to suffer from depression; approximately one in five patients had depression after completing radiation therapy for head and neck cancer and one in three patients had depression many years after the completion of treatment. Many patients also benefit from learning how to navigate their cancer journey or other skills, such as how to communicate with health care professionals, from people who have done the same before.
Bring a book and a pen. Write everything down, no matter what it is. The informed patient is the best patient.Debra R. (mucoepidermoid carcinoma of the palate survivor)