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Swallowing Tips (from a survivor’s perspective)

As we wander down the path of life, we sometimes find things that help.
These pages are dedicated to ‘sharing’ experiences or products
that have helped us “Make it Through the Day”

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Be sure to consult with your own healthcare professional.

Radiation & Chemotherapy can affect your swallowing during treatment and perhaps afterward.

Here are a few tips to help you along the way:

Keep Swallowing. Even though the throat may be sore and swollen, and you may be experiencing pain from mouth sores, try your best to keep eating. Ask your doctor for medication to numb the mouth and manage the pain. Use this strategy as long as possible. If you have a feeding tube, don’t depend on it until absolutely necessary and then keep taking liquids by mouth as long as you can. Maintain close contact with your dietitian to make sure you are getting enough nutrition.

The swallowing mechanism will rebound better if exercised as much as possible during treatment and for at least 6 months post-radiation. There are head and neck exercises and other therapies to help maintain muscle strength and swallowing coordination. Some treatment centers employ the use of e-stim on the neck area to stimulate and exercise the muscles during and following treatment. You may want to ask your doctors or therapists if this option is available. It is not, however, a replacement for exercise.

If you have had surgery – especially if lymph nodes have been removed – remain vigilant for a condition called Lymphedema. Lymphatic fluid can accumulate in the neck area and harden. There are trained therapists who specialize in the treatment of Lymphedema. This therapy should be utilized as soon as possible if the condition develops. Sometimes compression garments are helpful – especially when reclining. You will need to continue treatment until the condition improves.

Exercise the neck. Keep moving the head and avoid long periods of inactivity. Sitting at the computer and/or watching TV for long periods can cause the neck to lose mobility. Make sure you take breaks often and do physical exercises to keep the neck compliant. You will need to continue this program for at least one year post-treatment. This is the time you are most vulnerable to radiation fibrosis.

Stretch your mouth opening. Exercise the jaw and continue opening the mouth as wide as possible. Do this from the beginning of treatment and continue post-radiation. It will help maintain function and chewing ability.

Above all… be pro-active in maintaining your swallowing abilities. Make your doctors aware of any problems that may develop during treatment and after. Stay active — exercise the head & neck and seek out appropriate therapies as needed. Be aware of changes or difficulties and address issues as soon as possible. With proper care and attention, quality of life issues – during and post-treatment – can be minimized. Be positive and involved in your own recovery. It can only be a benefit.

Thanks, and… Keep Swallowing!

Del Shilling
Stage IV Tonsil Cancer Survivor since April, 2004