Swallowing After Cancer
BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (Ivanhoe Broadcast News) -- Each year, there are nearly 30,000 cases of head and neck cancer. Surgery, chemotherapy and radiation all have their benefits but can leave patients with a difficult time swallowing. Now, doctors are working to improve that.
Allen Clark, M.D., is a plastic surgeon. But two years ago, he became a patient. "I actually had a lymph node come up in my neck," he says. "Being a physician -- a surgeon -- knowing what that means, I was pretty sure I had cancer."
It was throat cancer. Doctors recommended chemotherapy and radiation. But radiation caused Clark's throat to tighten, and swallowing became excruciatingly painful.
"It's almost like you're drinking hot coffee that's too hot, and you burn your throat, but you do that every day for six or seven weeks," Bill Carroll, M.D., an otolaryngologist at University of Alabama at Birmingham, tells Ivanhoe.
Dr. Carroll and colleagues noticed patients who continued to swallow during treatment, instead of relying on a feeding tube, did better. Now, patients are taught a series of swallowing exercises they do before and during treatment.
"One of the exercises that we did was we'd hold my tongue between my teeth and swallow," Clark says. Another is making a high-pitch "E" sound to elevate the larynx. All the exercises work to strengthen the tongue and throat muscles. Patients say the exercises are simple but can be painful.
"But most of them do try," Dr. Carroll says. "And for the ones that are able to go ahead and do it, there seems to be a benefit."
Clark still has some trouble with certain foods, but says the exercises have paid off.
Dr. Carroll says the goal of the exercises is to allow patients to have a more functional swallow once chemo and radiation ends. He hopes the exercises will save both time in the hospital and money spent on complications.
This article was reported by Ivanhoe.com, who offers Medical Alerts by e-mail every day of the week. To subscribe, go to: /newsalert/.
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University of Alabama at Birmingham
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Birmingham, AL 35294-0113