Eating difficulties

This page was reviewed under our medical and editorial policy by

Maurie Markman, MD, President, Medicine & Science

This page was updated on March 29, 2022.

How do eating difficulties affect cancer patients?

Difficulty chewing may result from stiffness or pain in the mouth or jaw, or from problems with the teeth that make it hard to eat. Treatments, such as chemotherapy, radiation or surgery, may also interfere with a patient’s ability to chew or swallow food. Problems swallowing may include choking or coughing while eating, the inability to swallow, pain while swallowing or a feeling that food is stuck in the throat. These issues may range from mild to severe, and may be caused by the cancer itself, especially mouth, throat or esophageal cancers, which may cause the passages to tighten or narrow.

How likely are cancer patients to experience eating difficulties?

Painful or difficulty swallowing are common in patients with head and neck cancers, but chewing and swallowing disorders may also develop with other cancer types.

How may integrative care help?

Difficulty chewing and swallowing may make it challenging for patients to consume enough nutrients to maintain a healthy body weight. A number of traditional and supportive remedies may improve nutrition and caloric intake, such as:

Nutritional support

The nutrition team works closely with patients to prevent malnutrition and avoid treatment interruptions. For patients undergoing radiation to the head or neck region, difficulty chewing or swallowing is a common side effect. A dietitian may recommend a modified consistency diet that decreases the burden of chewing and eases the pain or difficulty associated with swallowing. The nutrition team can collaborate with the culinary staff to provide modified consistency foods tailored to patients’ needs. Dietitians also work closely with gastroenterologists when feeding tubes have been prescribed.

Learn more about nutritional support

Oncology rehabilitation

Chewing and swallowing issues often accompany speech and language difficulties. The speech pathologists on the oncology rehabilitation team may assess the patient’s swallowing abilities and make recommendations for safe eating and drinking. If a problem is identified, therapists may use exercises and other techniques to strengthen muscles in the mouth and throat. Stretching exercises and drills to improve speech and articulation may also help patients improve their ability to chew and swallow.

Learn more about oncology rehabilitation

Pain management

Difficulty swallowing may also be caused by pain. Relieving side effects through pain management is an important part of cancer care and treatment, especially in helping patients regain their quality of life. Pain management for patients experiencing chewing and swallowing issues may also improve their ability to eat and take in adequate amounts of nutrition. Painful swallowing may be treated with medications to reduce inflammation and pain. The pain management team at City of Hope is led by a physician who works in conjunction with other members of the supportive care team to provide relief to patients.

Learn more about pain management

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