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Oral, Head and Neck Cancer Awareness Week ~ For Those Whose Lives Have Been Touched

In recognition of oral head and neck cancer awareness week, we would like to provide oral care suggestions and eating hints for helping people diagnosed with head and neck cancers get ready for their treatment.  Being prepared and proactive with your own care can help you decrease and manage the effects of your therapy.

 Part 1 – Getting Ready For Treatment

I. Become Informed

Help to inform yourself about what to expect during and after your cancer treatment.  For many people with head and neck they will undergo treatment that can include surgery to remove the tumor or affected lymph nodes, chemotherapy, biotherapy, and/or radiation therapy to the head and neck area.

What are the possible side effects of these treatments and how can they impact your nutritional and oral well-being?  The following box outlines common acute side effects of head and neck cancer treatment (those occurring during treatment) that can affect your ability to eat

Acute Side Effects of Cancer Treatment:

  • a dry mouth (xerostomia)
  • a sore mouth and throat (mucositis)
  • altered taste or a loss of taste (dysguesia)
  • altered smell or loss of smell
  • difficult or painful swallowing, (dysphagia or odynophagia)
  • oral infections such as yeast infection (candidiasis)
  • being tired and worn out (fatigue)
  • loss of appetite (anorexia)
  • unwanted weight loss

Some of these eating-related problems may go away after treatment, others may last a long time, while some may never go away.  Long-lasting or late-occurring side effects of treatment may include some or all of conditions that are listed in the box below.  Often these side effects may occur months and even years after undergoing cancer treatment.

Long-Lasting or Late-Occurring Side Effects of Treatment:

  • a permanently dry mouth and lack of saliva (xerostomia)
  • dental problems such an increased risk of cavities and gum disease
  • a condition where it is difficult to open the mouth (trismus)
  • a tightness of the esophagus or food pipe when swallowing or food may feel like it becomes stuck (esophageal stenosis or fibrosis)
  • coughing when drinking or swallowing because liquids or food goes into the airway (aspiration)

For a majority of people diagnosed with head and neck cancer—it hurts to chew and swallow, and it can be very difficult to eat—before, during and even after cancer treatment.  It is important to be proactive.  See your dentist and ask to be referred to the registered dietitian at your Cancer Center.  We will discuss these in more detail in part 2 later this week so stay tuned!

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