Three times Phil McNulty battled throat cancer. He won each time, but in the process lost his voice.
“They were doing very massive radiation back then and it was so massive that I really couldn’t swallow for like three years,” says McNulty.
His story is painfully familiar. Speech therapist Stacey Brill works with people like McNulty- helping them eat, drink and speak. The sooner they start, the better their chances.
“We’ve had many patients referred to us 10 years post chemo and radiation. Many of them still have a feeding tube in. So imagine living your life with feeding tube for all of those years when potentially you may have not had to,” says Stacey Brill, speech therapist with Lee Memorial Health System.
The road to swallow therapy wasn’t well paved. Many patients never heard of it. Something Brill hopes to change.
“Listening to the cancer patient and family members as to what was missing and feeling out some input from some physicians we were able to put together and head and neck cancer pathway,” says Brill.
Here’s how the pathway works: when someone gets a diagnosis, they can work with a cancer navigator, a Lee Memorial Health System specialist, who will guide them to specialists and help set appointments, one of which will be with a speech therapist.
“As soon as we’re able to identify they’re having difficulty swallowing we go ahead and start them in swallow therapy so we can maintain a goal of oral intake throughout the course of their chemo and radiation,” says Brill.
Some patients will have temporary swallowing issues, others permanent. Therapy can strengthen or retrain the throat muscles. Using exercises and electrical stimulation, it made a world of difference to McNulty.“The more you know about your problem and how you can help yourself, that’s really important to recover or just to start functioning again,” says McNulty.