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Speech and Swallowing Therapy for Cancer Patients

Patients living with and being treated for mesothelioma and other types of cancers can benefit from working with speech and language therapists during and after treatment. While it may not initially seem relevant, the impact of cancer, chemotherapy, and other treatments can include damage and side effects that make swallowing, speaking, and communicating more difficult.

Exercises and strategies that speech and language therapists use with patients can help patients regain the ability to speak well, improve vocabulary, find alternative ways to communicate, and strengthen the muscles involved in swallowing, making it easier to drink and eat. Any cancer patients who experience these language, speaking, or swallowing difficulties during treatment or in recovery 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 is a type of care that provides patients with exercises, guidance, and treatments to improve communication, speaking, vocabulary, tone and volume, and the ability to swallow. Anyone who struggles in any of 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 and specific training in language, speaking, hearing, and swallowing disorders. They help improve vocabulary, voice tone annunciation, sentence structure, and speaking. They 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 or finished with chemotherapy may benefit from working with a speech and language therapist because of certain side effects this treatment causes. The term chemo brain isn’t an official medical term, but it is what many patients use to describe a group of cognitive symptoms they experience. The more official term is cancer treatment-related cognitive impairment, or CTRCI. Experts don’t actually know what causes chemo brain, and some patients get the symptoms before ever having chemotherapy. There are likely many factors at play.

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

  • Unusual lapses in memory
  • Difficulty focusing on a task; spacing out when trying to concentrate
  • Trouble with multi-tasking even simple chores.
  • A general feeling of mental fogginess.
  • Fatigue.
  • Difficulty learning something new.
  • Taking longer than usual to finish tasks.
  • Difficulty remembering words.
  • Being unable to find the right word to finish a thought or sentence.

The symptoms related to language and words cause significant difficulties in communicating with others. A cancer patient experiencing chemo brain may spend minutes looking for the right word, making talking to someone else or communicating thoughts very challenging.

Speech and Language Therapy Improves Communication

Speech and language therapists can work with cancer patients to improve communication that has been hampered by chemo brain. They don’t simply find ways for patient to improve memory or find words more easily. What these therapists do is provide a full range of exercises, skills, strategies, and solutions for getting around the cognitive problems caused by chemo brain and cancer while their brains and bodies heal and recover.

One element of speech and language therapy for cancer patients may involve guiding them through cognitive exercises that boost certain skills and that may help improve memory. More practically, therapists help these patients use other strategies for managing their lives and being able to communicate in spite of difficulties: learning time management skills, using daily schedules, using word lists, working with technology to communicate, and trying sleep strategies to reduce fatigue. Therapists also educate patients and their families to help them better understand the condition and how they can aid communication.

Swallowing Difficulties

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

Treatments for cancers in the head and neck can also trigger swallowing problems. Surgery may damage muscles involved in swallowing, for instance, or may actually necessitate the removal of some of these tissues. Radiation can cause damage to the muscles needed to swallow and is generally known to affect swallowing more than speech, but any treatment for these types of cancers can cause difficulties with both swallowing and speech.

Swallowing Therapy and Exercises

Being able to swallow is something that most people don’t have to think about, but when that ability is gone or reduced, it has a significant impact on quality of life. Good therapy from a qualified speech and language therapist can improve swallowing and 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 a treatment plan. The therapist can then create a customized plan that meets the exact needs of the individual. Treatment often includes exercises that are designed to strengthen specific muscles needed for swallowing.

Another important role that this type of therapy plays in cancer patients is preventative. When speech and language therapists work with patients before undergoing the cancer treatments that are likely to impact swallowing, the impact of the treatment is often lessened. The pretreatment involves similar exercise as those used after treatment. They help patients develop greater strength in advance of treatment so that they can maintain better function.

Both preventative and treatment-based swallowing therapy guided by speech and language therapists have been shown to make significant improvements on patients’ 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, while only 65 percent of those who did not use the exercises could.

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 are not necessarily the most obvious side effects of mesothelioma and other cancers, but they are common and significant. The work of a speech and language therapist can prove invaluable in restoring function to patients who are struggling. If you are having these issues as you live with cancer and cancer treatment, be sure to talk about it to your medical team. There is likely a therapist on staff or a dedicated program for improving speech and swallowing that you can work with or participate in.

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