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Learning About Nutrition When You Have Head or Neck Cancer

How can head or neck cancer treatment affect eating?

Chemotherapy (chemo) or radiation therapy to the head or neck can affect how well you can chew and swallow. This can make it harder to eat or drink. The side effects are more common a week or two after treatment starts. They may last for a few weeks or even months after treatment is over.

Side effects depend on where the cancer is in your mouth or throat.

Surgery for head or neck cancer may also cause long-term changes to the mouth and tongue.

Cancer treatments can affect your sense of taste and smell, which can make it hard to eat. You may get a dry mouth, a cough, or a sore and swollen throat.

If you have chemo or radiation, you may have other side effects, including:

  • Swelling and redness in the lining of the mouth and throat.
  • A dry mouth.
  • A yeast infection in the mouth (thrush or candida).
  • Tightness of the jaw.

If the side effects are so bad that you can't eat, you can get nutrition through a feeding tube. The tube is put into your stomach and is used to give food, liquids, and medicines. And speech therapy or special swallowing exercises can help if you're having trouble with your tongue, mouth, or throat.

What can you do if you have trouble eating?

Coping with side effects from cancer treatment can be a challenge. But there are many things you can do at home to make your mouth and throat feel better.

  • Try to think of food as medicine.

    It's part of your treatment. You need plenty of calories and protein to get better. Get extra protein by adding plain, low-cost protein powder to smoothies, shakes, breakfast drinks, or nutritional drinks (such as Ensure or Boost).

  • Eat foods you like, but be aware that your sense of taste may change.

    After you recover, you may not want to eat the same foods. Experiment with new or different foods.

  • Try softer foods.

    If your mouth is sore or you have trouble swallowing, soft foods can be easier to eat. Try foods like cooked cereals, scrambled eggs, cottage cheese, tender chicken, flaky fish, mashed potatoes, or even baby food, which comes in many flavours. Soft, moist foods tend to be easiest to swallow.

  • Stay away from spicy or acidic foods if they hurt.

    And try foods at different temperatures to find out the way you like it.

  • Make a rinse to keep your mouth from getting dry.

    Stir together 1 tsp of salt, 1 tsp of baking soda, and 4 cups of water. Use a small amount to rinse your mouth 4 to 6 times each day. Spit out the rinse. Don't swallow it.

  • Don't use a mouthwash (or any other over-the-counter rinse) that contains alcohol.

    These can dry out your mouth or cause more pain. Ask your doctor about other oral gels, lubricants, substitute saliva, and mouthwashes that you might use.

  • Drink plenty of fluids.

    This can help prevent dehydration. Drinking through a straw may help with pain.

  • Practice good oral hygiene.

    Use a very soft toothbrush to brush your teeth. You could also use a soft cloth. When your mouth is dry, you are more likely to get tooth decay or have other dental problems. Try to see your dentist at the start of your cancer treatments.

  • If you are having trouble eating, you can get support from a registered dietitian or a dietitian who works in cancer care. A dietitian can help you find ways to meet your nutrition needs.

Follow-up care is a key part of your treatment and safety. Be sure to make and go to all appointments, and call your doctor or nurse advice line (811 in most provinces and territories) if you are having problems. It's also a good idea to know your test results and keep a list of the medicines you take.

Where can you learn more?

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