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Chewing & swallowing

Cancer and its treatment can sometimes cause difficulty chewing and/or swallowing. Difficulty chewing can result from physical changes to the mouth, jaw or tongue caused by cancers like oral cancer. Pain or difficulty swallowing, or dysphagia, is a common symptom of cancers like throat cancer and esophageal cancer. Symptoms of dysphagia may include pain while swallowing, inability to swallow, choking or coughing while eating, a sensation of food getting stuck in the throat, and soreness, pain and/or swelling in the throat or mouth.

Difficulty chewing and/or swallowing can be scary. If left untreated, improper swallowing can lead to aspiration, in which food falls into the lung. Your doctor may prescribe medications to reduce inflammation and pain. Some pain medications can be used as a mouth rinse directly before eating. Sometimes, airway stents may be also used to relieve dysphagia.

In addition, your doctor may refer you to a speech-language pathologist, who can help teach you how to swallow and/or chew more easily. Your doctor may also recommend you see a dentist, who can check the health of your mouth and teeth, help lessen the severity of infection, and provide guidance on how to safely keep the mouth clean. If chewing and/or swallowing problems make it difficult for you to maintain a proper diet, your doctor may also refer you to a dietitian, who can provide nutrition parenterally (through a vein) or enterally (through a feeding tube).

Tips for managing difficulty chewing & swallowing

  • Eat soft, smooth foods (e.g., cooked cereals, tofu, cottage cheese, mashed potatoes or sweet potatoes, yogurt, pudding, ice cream, etc.).
  • Avoid hard, dry or crusty foods.
  • Moisten dry foods with gravy, broth or milk, or puree food in a blender to make it softer and easier to eat.
  • Take small bites and chew slowly and thoroughly.
  • If you are unable to tolerate soft foods, switch to liquids and/or pureed foods.
  • Emphasize liquid nutritional supplements of high caloric and nutrient density (e.g., nutritional shakes).
  • Eat foods that are cold or at room temperature.
  • Drink plenty of fluids each day. When swallowing is difficult, you can also try sipping water or sucking on ice chips.
  • Sit upright when eating or drinking.
  • The use of nutritional support (i.e., tube feeding) may be necessary if the problem persists or progresses to an inability to swallow. Contact your nutritionist immediately if this problem persists.

NOTE: This information is not intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to making decisions about your treatment.

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