Rehabilitation and Support for Head and Neck Cancer

Rehabilitation during and after treatment is an important part of the care plan, since many patients may find their speech, swallowing, or other functions become more difficult. The goals of rehabilitation are different for each patient. At the University of Chicago Comprehensive Cancer Center, patients work with speech pathologists, therapists, dietitians, and other experts to improve their chances of making a full recovery.

Nutrition

As a result of both the cancer and treatment, patients may experience difficulty maintaining their usual diet. There is growing evidence that good nutritional habits help patients recover from chemotherapy and radiation therapy. If it is safe, it is best for patients to continue to eat by mouth during treatment. If a feeding tube is required, it is good to continue to eat some things orally.

The dietitians on the cancer team know that during treatment, patients may find that food tastes different, appetite may be poor, and it may take a long time to eat certain foods. Patients may be unsure about what they should eat and might feel anxious about swallowing. Our dietitians can answer questions and recommend types of foods and ways to prepare food that help patients:

  • Maintain optimal body weight
  • Improve nutritional intake during and after hospitalization
  • Help patients gain control and better cope with treatment
  • Resume normal activities more quickly after treatment is completed

Swallow Function

Cancer of the head and neck can cause difficulty swallowing. Treatments for cancer such as surgery, radiation and chemotherapy may also cause swallowing problems. At the University of Chicago medical center, specially trained speech pathologists work one-on-one with head and neck cancer patients to create customized plans to maintain optimal swallowing function during and after treatment. Therapies include mouth, neck and swallowing exercises to improve muscle coordination. Some patients may require enteral tube feeding to ensure proper nutritional support. Our goal is to help you resume the most natural diet in a safe way.

Speech Therapy

Head and neck cancer treatment often affects speech. Here, our speech pathologists work with patients to address speech problems during and after treatment. Our specialists provide detailed exercises to help patients communicate effectively. Speech therapy may continue after cancer treatments have concluded.

Coordinated Care with Dental Professionals

Treatment for head and neck cancer affects the mouth, salivary glands and teeth. It's critical for patients to maintain proper dental care before, during and after treatment. Dental problems should be addressed as early as possible--often before radiation treatment--to ensure that dental and gum problems do not lead to infection, jaw damage or other health problems. Our team will work with you and your dentist to ensure proper dental care. If your dentist is not experienced in caring for patients with head and neck cancer, our team can recommend dental professionals to meet your needs.

Dedicated Head and Neck Support Group

Support plays a major role in the treatment for head and neck cancer. Patients are encouraged to share their feelings and accept support and encouragement from the treatment team, family members, and friends. At the University of Chicago, an outpatient support group meets each month so that patients can share common concerns and learn from each others’ experiences. And when behavior changes such as smoking cessation are needed, our team can develop a plan to help patients protect their health in the future.

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