Speech Language Pathologist Role in Head & Neck Cancer
Because head & neck cancer often affects the structures involved in eating, breathing and talking, treatment for this form of cancer can greatly impact these functions. Depending on the nature and extent of the cancer, surgery or radiation may be required. More advanced cancers will require larger surgeries and often times radiation as well. Treatment of this type can often have an impact on a patient’s ability to eat, talk or even breathe as they did before treatment.
The role of the speech language pathologist (SLP) in head & neck cancer is a very important one, often even before the onset of any treatment.
Before Head & Neck Surgery
The SLP will typically perform baseline tests to evaluate how well a person is able to eat, breathe and talk in the presence of the cancer. This can be very helpful in understanding how the planned surgery may or may not impact these functions in the weeks and months to follow. Understanding this before surgery can allow both the patient and family the time to prepare and adjust for these changes. The SLP’s focus is always to maintain the highest level of function possible as it relates to eating, breathing and talking. Many times, the consequences to these functions are unavoidable in curing the cancer, but the SLP can typically educate a patient on what can be expected, and also how therapy may be able to help after treatment is complete.
Before and During Radiation
Radiation may be required after surgery and in some cases, radiation alone is the recommended treatment. It is very common for head & neck cancer patients to undergo radiation treatment in an effort to cure their cancer. The SLP will help the patient prepare for the effects of radiation treatment. By maintaining proper nutrition and hydration, performing swallowing exercises and jaw stretches, patients can help to minimize the effects of their radiation treatment. Intermittent follow-up with the SLP during treatment can often be very helpful in finding ways to help cope with some of the side effects of radiation while still focusing on maintaining function. The SLP can also be helpful in ensuring you continue to eat safely during the course of treatment.
After Treatment Completion
Unfortunately, the effects of surgery and/or radiation can cause changes in your voice, speech, swallowing and breathing. The reasons for this typically relate to surgical changes to the structures as well as scar tissue that can evolve and become worse over time. In many cases, targeted therapy can help restore function, especially when changes of this nature are caught early. Routine exams as well as regular contact with your SLP can help identify changes in function before they become more severe and difficult to treat.
It is always important for head & neck cancer patients to establish care and maintain routine evaluations with their SLP. Cancer treatment can be difficult but the SLP can help ensure that patients are achieving their best when it comes to eating, breathing and talking so life is as full as possible.
Left to Right: Jenna F, SLP Fellow; Anna Katherine K, SLP Fellow; Katrina Jensen MA, CCC-SLP; Julial, SLP Fellow; Mikayla M, Medical SLP: Runs Colleyville Office; Ana G, Program Assistant