Speech Pathology and Cancer

When you first mention speech pathology, you don’t instantly think ‘cancer’ do you?  Speech Pathologists work with a vast array of people, including those with cancer of the head and neck.

Surgery, chemotherapy and radiotherapy of the head and neck can impact a person in many ways – including your swallowing, chewing, talking, voice and even breathing.  The most common reason we see patients for is their swallowing; something we can tend to take for granted until it is not working properly!  If not treated, it can have a sifnificant impact on your life and even possibly lead to aspiration pneumonia (a chest infection caused by food or drink not going down the food pipe, but into the airway and into the lungs).

We can assess your swallow in three different ways:

  1. Clinical Exam.  We ask you to eat a variety of different foods (eg. some hard and dry, some soft and moist) and take a drink.  We will place our hand over your voice box and feel its movement as you swallow.  We also look to see if you cough or choke, have a wet voice, have anything left in your mouth or lips as these are some signs that you either are, or may be at risk, for things going down into the lungs.
  2. Video Fluoroscopy Study (VFSS) or modified barium swallow.  We work with the X-Ray team at the hospital for this approach.  We mix barium (a white, chalky liquid) with different food and drink, and ask you to swallow while having an X-Ray.  This enables us to instantly see if anything is going into your airway, or getting ‘stuck’ while swallowing.
  3. Fibreoptic Endoscopic Evaluation of Swallowing (FEES).  We complete this in conjunction with an ENT.  A small camera is placed through your nose, and down the back of your throat so we can see your vocal folds.  Your vocal folds act as one of the ‘protectors’ of your airway when eating or drinking.  We will ask you to eat/drink a range of different foods and drinks, to allow us to see if anything is going down into your lungs instead of your stomach.

We can then provide you with a range of different exercises, techniques and recommendations with how to best manage your swallowing problems, possibly including changing the texture or thickness of what you eat and drink.

If you are undergoing treatment for head and neck cancer, have a chat with your ENT surgeon and ask if they think it would be appropriate for you to see a Speech Pathologist.  We have a number of tricks up our sleeves that can help make the already daunting process a little easier.

We have Speech Langauge Pathology appointments available in BeenleighChinchilla, and Toowoomba.  We also do consults via video conference with TeleTAGBook a phone consult now to discuss your specific therapy needs!

About the Author

Kathleen Bagley
Speech Pathologist

Kathleen is a local Toowoomba girl who studied Psychology and Linguistics, before completing her Master Of Speech Pathology Studies. Kathleen enjoys and has experience working with both children, teens and adults with a wide range of communication and swallowing difficulties. She has a particular interest in swallowing and communication rehabilitation following brain injury. Things Kathleen likes: puppies, pot plants and sequins. Things Kathleen dislikes: feet and spiders (especially spiders feet!). Kathleen has also been known to spontaneously break out into song, so beware!

“Today you are you, that is truer than true. There is no one alive who is youer than you.”    – Dr Seuss

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