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Speech and Swallowing Therapy for Cancer Patients

Patients living with mesothelioma and other types of cancers can benefit from speech and language therapy during and after treatment. While it may not seem relevant, the impact of cancer, chemotherapy, and other treatments can cause side effects that make swallowing and speaking difficult.

Speech and language therapists use specific exercises to help patients regain the ability to speak well, improve vocabulary, find alternative methods of communication. These exercises also strengthen muscles involved in swallowing, making it easier for patients to drink and eat. Cancer patients who experience language, speaking, or swallowing difficulties during treatment should talk to their doctors about working with a speech and language therapist.

What is Speech and Language Therapy?

Also known as speech and language pathology, speech and language therapy provides patients with exercises, guidance, and treatments to improve speaking, vocabulary, tone, volume, and the ability to swallow. Anyone who struggles in these areas, regardless of the underlying cause, can benefit from working with a speech and language professional.

Speech and language therapists are licensed health professionals with advanced training in language, speaking, hearing, and swallowing disorders. They help improve vocabulary, voice tone annunciation, sentence structure, and speaking. These important professionals also help patients improve the ability to swallow and eat. They also work with patients who have cognitive challenges that make communicating difficult.

Chemo Brain and Communication Challenges

Any cancer patient going through chemotherapy can benefit from working with a speech and language therapist. There are specific side effects of treatment that speech and language therapy can address. While “chemo brain” isn’t an official medical term, many patients use it to describe a group of cognitive symptoms they experience during chemotherapy. The more official term is cancer treatment-related cognitive impairment, or CTRCI. Experts disagree on what causes chemo brain, and some patients develop symptoms before ever having chemotherapy. There are likely many factors at play.

Regardless of the cause, CTRCI causes a number of uncomfortable and disorienting symptoms sometimes described as cloudiness or fuzziness in the brain. Symptoms include:

  • Unusual lapses in memory
  • Difficulty concentrating.
  • Trouble multi-tasking.
  • A general feeling of mental fogginess.
  • Fatigue.
  • Difficulty learning something new.
  • Taking longer than usual to finish tasks.
  • Difficulty remembering words.

The symptoms related to language and words cause significant difficulties in communication. A cancer patient experiencing chemo brain may fumble through fogginess looking for the right word to finish a sentence. This makes conversation and communication challenging.

Speech and Language Therapy Improves Communication

Speech and language therapists can work with cancer patients to improve communication hampered by chemo brain. Therapists do more that help patients improve memory or find words more easily. They also provide a full range of exercises, skills, strategies, and solutions for the cognitive problems caused by CTRCI.

Speech and language therapists may guide patients through cognitive exercises that boost certain skills and improve memory. More practically, therapists help patients use other strategies for managing their lives and communicating in spite of difficulties. These strategies include learning time management skills, using daily schedules and word lists, working with technology, and sleep strategies to reduce fatigue. Therapists also educate patient families to help them understand the condition and how they can aid communication.

Swallowing Difficulties

Cancer patients may also struggle with swallowing as a result of the cancer itself, the treatment, or both. Patients with head and neck cancers are most often affected, but mesothelioma and lung cancer can metastasize and spread to these areas, triggering swallowing difficulties. Cancer can affect swallowing if the tumor is directly in the way or affects the muscles involved.

Treatments for cancers in the head and neck can also trigger swallowing problems. Surgery can damage muscles important to the swallowing process. In addition, cancer treatment may necessitate the removal of some of these tissues. Radiation generally affects swallowing more than speech, but any treatment for these types of cancers can cause difficulties with both.

Swallowing Therapy and Exercises

The ability to swallow is something most people take for granted. However, when that ability is inhibited, it can have a significant impact on quality of life. A qualified speech and language therapist can help improve swallowing. Therapy can even lead to independence from feeding tubes, which makes a big difference for patients. Improving swallowing also minimizes the risks of malnutrition and painful mouth sores.

A speech and language therapist works with patients by first assessing swallowing function and evaluating the patient to develop an individualized treatment plan. Treatment often includes exercises designed to strengthen specific muscles.

This type of therapy also plays a preventive role for cancer patients. When speech and language therapists work with patients before cancer treatments likely to impact swallowing, the impact of the treatment is often lessened. Pre-treatment uses exercises similar to those used after treatment, helping patients develop strength to maintain better function.

Both preventative and treatment-based swallowing therapy can make significant improvements in patient ability to swallow, eat, and drink. In one study of cancer patients, 92 percent of those who engaged in swallowing exercises were able to eat normally again after cancer treatment. In comparison, only 65 percent of those who did not use the exercises had the same result.

Cancer and its treatments cause a whole host of side effects and symptoms that detract from a person’s quality of life. Swallowing and speaking may not be the most obvious side effects of mesothelioma and other cancers, but they are common and significant. The work of a speech and language therapist is invaluable in restoring function to struggling patients. If you are having these issues, be sure to talk to your medical team. There may be a therapist on staff or a dedicated program for improving speech and swallowing available.

Page Edited by Dave Foster

Dave has been a mesothelioma Patient Advocate for over 10 years. He consistently attends all major national and international mesothelioma meetings. In doing so, he is able to stay on top of the latest treatments, clinical trials, and research results. He also personally meets with mesothelioma patients and their families and connects them with the best medical specialists and legal representatives available. Connect with Patient Advocate Dave Foster

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