Head and Neck Cancer

By Tracy Thomas, MS CCC SP#15204
Speech Pathologist

Have you been diagnosed with head and neck cancer? Or do you know someone who has been? The American Cancer Society reports there were approximately 52,610 new cases of head and neck cancers in 2012 in the United States. This accounts for approximately 3 percent of all cancers in the U.S. according to the National Cancer Institute. Head and neck cancer affects twice as many men as women.

Types of Head and Neck Cancer

Head and Neck Cancer may include the following areas:

Oral cavity: The mouth including lips, gums, cheeks, floor of the mouth, hard palate, jaw and two thirds of the tongue.

Pharynx: The throat including the base of the tongue and the tonsils.

Larynx: The  “voicebox,” which is formed by cartilage and contains the vocal cords.

Paranasal sinuses and nasal cavity: The paranasal sinuses are small hollow spaces in the bones of the head surrounding the nose. The nasal cavity is the hollow space inside the nose.

Salivary glands: The major salivary glands, which produce saliva, are in the floor of the mouth and near the jawbone.
Thyroid: A butterfly shaped endocrine gland near the base of the neck above your collarbone.

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Treatment and Potential Side Effects

Common treatments for Head and Neck Cancer include surgery, radiation and chemotherapy.  Such treatments may cause changes in anatomy that affect your ability to speak and/or you can develop dysphagia (difficulty swallowing).

General signs or symptoms of dysphagia include:

  • The need to swallow many times to clear food from the mouth and throat
  • Wet sounding voice after swallowing
  • Coughing or choking or throat clearing while eating
  • Pain and dryness when swallowing

Speech/voice/swallowing changes after treatment for head and neck cancer include:

  • Soreness in the mouth and throat
  • Reduced saliva and dry mouth
  • Limited movement and/or stiffness of the remaining structures affecting speech and swallowing
  • Difficulty chewing and moving food from the mouth through the throat
  • Throat pain
  • Changes in taste and smell
  • Changes in vocal quality or resonance

Tips for Common Problems

If you are experiencing dry mouth:

  • Increase fluid intake, if appropriate
  • Eat moist foods, if appropriate
  • Use saliva substitutes  (i.e. Biotine)
  • Avoid caffeine, antihistamines, and decongestants, if appropriate
  • Avoid mouthwashes that contain alcohol

If you are experiencing changes in or loss of taste:

  • Try sweet or sour foods, if appropriate
  • Brush your tongue thoroughly

If you are experiencing acid reflux:

  • Try lifestyle and dietary modifications
  • Avoid large meals before bed and eat 6 small meals versus 3 large meals per day
  • Avoid caffeine, citrus or spicy foods
  • A physician may prescribe anti-reflux medications, if appropriate

A Speech Pathologist can help! A licensed Speech Pathologist is able to evaluate the nature of speech and/or swallowing difficulties and disorders.  He/she can determine the safest diet consistencies, develop an exercise program, design compensatory strategies and/or provide voice therapy.  Talk to your physician about whether a referral to a Speech Pathologist is appropriate.

This site is designed for educational purposes only.  You should not rely on this information as a substitute for, nor does it replace, professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment.  Please consult your physician or other health care professional to determine whether a certain treatment is right for your needs.



National Cancer Institute: http://www.cancer.gov/cancertopics/factsheet/Sites-Types/head-and-neck

Jemal A, Siegel R, Xu J, Ward E. Cancer statistics, 2010. CA: A Cancer Journal for Clinicians 2010; 60(5):277–300.[PubMed Abstract]

American Cancer Society (2012).   Cancer Facts & Figures 2012   Atlanta, GA: American Cancer Society. Retrieved December 26, 2012.

Tracy Thomas graduated with her Bachelors and Masters of Science from University of the Pacific in Stockton, California in 2004. She helps a variety of adults, however, her specialty is evaluating and treating individuals with voice disorders and dysphagia, especially difficulty swallowing due to head and neck cancer. 


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