Patients with oral cancers had a much better long-term diet if they received oral feeding and practiced swallowing exercises during radiation therapy. That’s the word from a new study. For Stacey Brill, those are words to live by.
“If we can maintain you eating and drinking throughout the course of your treatment, maintain you on the course of nutrition and hydration, make sure your pain levels are under control, your whole life is going to be better,” says Brill.
Brill is a speech therapist with Lee Memorial Health System. She works with head and neck cancer patients, some who’ve lost vital parts to surgery, others have damage from radiation. Her challenge it to re-teach them how to swallow.
“In the swallowing therapy we use a combination of things. We’re going to do a modified swallow to assess the swallow function. Once we identify what’s wrong with the swallow we’re able to bring them into the clinic and put the Vitalstim electrodes on them which is going to make their swallowing muscles contract,” says Brill.
This large study showed oral cancer patients who maintained oral intake were twice as likely to eat a regular diet later. And those who stuck to swallowing exercises were four times as likely to eat normally. Working with a cancer dietitian also makes the process easier to digest.
“We can empower the patients to participate, to nourish and hydrate themselves. And nutrition is so important, the replacing possible nutrients or bi-products that are lost through the whole treatment plan,” says Valerie Butram, oncology dietitian with Lee Memorial Health System.
A key to success is being proactive, using a cancer pathway that includes feeding as part of the overall treatment plan.
“If we can start you on a home education program or a home exercise program to prevent those deficits to happen over the course of your cancer treatment, you’re obviously going to be better off,” says Brill.
Staying on top of swallowing may help cancer patients enjoy a lifetime of eating.