Benefits of speech therapy for head & neck cancers

Published: Tuesday, May 30, 2023
Rebecca Sabo
Speech Language Pathologist

May is Better Speech and Hearing Month (BSHM) and the perfect time to highlight one of the lesser known roles that a speech therapist can play within your life.

Speech therapists not only work with individuals who have difficulties speaking clearly, but a large part of this field includes treating individuals who have Dysphagia, or difficulties with swallowing. Disorders of swallowing can be caused by a stroke, neurological disorders, head injury, dementia, aging, effects from surgery or head and neck cancer.

Read on to learn how a speech therapist can help you before, during, and after head and neck cancer treatments.

Before Your Cancer Treatments

Receiving a diagnosis of head and neck cancer can be overwhelming, and speech/swallowing therapists who specialize in cancer rehabilitation are there to walk you through each phase of your journey. Head and neck cancer treatments may include surgery, radiation, and/or chemotherapy which can all impact your ability to swallow. Ideally, speech therapy should begin before your cancer treatments for an initial swallow evaluation to determine whether you are experiencing difficulties swallowing.

Further testing may include an in-person exam to determine how your swallowing muscles are moving to safely close your airway when eating/drinking, or a Modified Barium Swallow (MBS) exam – a video fluoroscopic test which provides an internal view of how food/liquid moves through your mouth, throat and to your esophagus.

During an initial evaluation, a speech/swallowing therapist will develop individual goals with you to maintain your swallowing function so that your body can receive the nutrition/hydration that it needs to fight your battle with cancer and reduce the risk of aspiration pneumonia. This type of pneumonia can occur when swallowing difficulties cause food/liquid particles to enter the lungs and result in an infection.

During Your Cancer Treatments

During your head and neck cancer treatments, a speech therapist will meet with you consistently in order to provide you with stretches for your neck, jaw, and tongue to reduce muscle tension that can develop from radiation (radiation fibrosis) and provide exercises to strengthen the muscles that you swallow with. These stretches and exercises are crucial in helping to maintain your swallowing function before, during and after your cancer treatments.

Speech/swallowing therapists will also provide you with information and strategies to help lessen the side effects from cancer treatments such as ways to manage dry mouth, how to care for your mouth/throat/neck during treatments, and maintain nutrition/hydration.

According to the Head and Neck Cancer Alliance, head and neck cancer treatments impact the elaborate lymphatic network of more than 300 of the 800 nodes that we have in our bodies and it is estimated that up to 75% of patients will experience lymphedema after head and neck cancer treatments. Lymphedema of the head and neck manifests as internal and external swelling where lymphatic fluid pools within the area affected by head/neck cancer treatments and can cause difficulties with cervical range of motion and difficulties swallowing. Under the care of a speech/swallowing therapist specializing in head and neck cancer rehabilitation, lymphedema management may also be a part of your therapy sessions in order to reduce internal/external swelling and maintain swallowing skills and reduce the risk of aspiration or food/liquid entering the lungs.

After Your Cancer Treatments

After your head/neck cancer treatments, a speech therapist will help you manage any lingering effects from cancer treatments, address lymphedema, encourage stretching exercises to reduce the impact of muscle tension (radiation fibrosis) and maintain and improve your swallowing skills.

Sometimes preserving your swallowing skills becomes extremely difficult with cancer treatments and the potential need for a feeding tube in order to maintain your nutrition/hydration may be necessary. If this is the case, your speech/swallowing therapist will encourage you to continue swallowing and potentially rehabilitate swallowing function with swallowing exercises and compensatory strategies. Your therapist will walk you through the rehabilitation and weaning process to resume eating by mouth again.    

Learn More

Once you receive a diagnosis of head and neck cancer, Northeast Georgia Medical Center speech/swallowing therapists will be there for you, to walk along with you in your journey to fight cancer, help to maintain and improve your ability to swallow, and help to lessen the effects of your cancer treatments so that you can focus on healing and recovery.

Learn more about our outpatient and inpatient speech, occupational and physical therapy services at