May 19, 2020 11:00 AM

Eating well is important—and even more so during cancer treatment. Good nutrition makes it easier for you to tolerate treatment and boosts your quality of life. But if you have a head and neck cancer, treatments and side effects may affect how you eat.

People with head and neck cancers may have these problems:

  • Difficulty chewing or swallowing
  • Taste and smell changes
  • Loss of appetite
  • Sore or dry mouth and throat
  • Thick saliva or mucus

Huntsman Cancer Institute (HCI) patient Don Burbank got radiation treatment for tongue cancer and experienced many side effects.

“I had a buildup of mucus in my throat. I tried using over-the-counter medicine but it didn’t help,” Don says. “Sores were developing in the back of my tongue and along the gum line of my mouth. My lips are still tender on the inside [three months after finishing treatment].”

Registered dietitians and speech therapists are part of your care team and can help you with the side effects that make it hard to eat. Speech therapists provide swallowing exercises to keep your throat muscles strong. They may recommend food with a certain texture, such as soft or pureed, to make sure you can eat safely.

Don explains, “I found that as the treatments continued, I was having trouble swallowing. Food would get stuck in my throat and would trigger a gag response. Eating made me tired because it was so much work.” 

When you are not feeling well and have trouble swallowing, it can be hard to meet your body’s energy needs. If you start losing weight, it means your body is not getting enough energy. Registered dietitians can help you figure out how to consume enough protein and calories to maintain your weight and muscle mass. They consider your preferences and provide you with appropriate food and fluid options.

Don’s dietitian recommended puddings, soft foods, and gelatin. When those foods became too hard to swallow, Don went on a total liquid diet with drinks that gave him enough calories and nutrients.

Everyone has different nutrition needs and different issues, so it’s important to work with your dietitian and medical team to find what works for you. Here are some tips your dietitian may suggest:

Eat small meals throughout the day.

  • Try eating every 2–3 hours to give you energy all day long.
  • Eat at the same time every day. You may want to set an alarm to remind you it’s time to eat.

Choose high-calorie and high-protein foods.

  • Foods with higher calories and protein help you maintain your weight without having to eat a large amount of food.
  • Whole-fat dairy products, cream-based soups, and nutrition supplement beverages are good high-calorie and high-protein foods. 

Add extra calories to your food.

  • Add extra fat to your food to increase calories without having to eat a lot more.
  • Cook vegetables in oil and butter to get the nutrients of vegetables along with extra calories.

Focus on foods or drinks that are easy to chew and swallow.

  • How you eat may change throughout treatment. As Don mentioned, he started eating soft foods but found that a liquid diet was best for him.
  • Keep soft foods and nutrition supplement beverages on hand in case it becomes too hard to swallow. 
Read more about eating well during head and neck cancer treatment.

Head and neck cancer oral cancer Patient stories Esophageal cancer Nutrition

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