Patients with head and neck cancers who receive chemoradiation typically have long-term side effects, like difficulty swallowing or need for a feeding tube. But researchers in California have developed a "swallow therapy," which has been shown to significantly improve post-treatment quality of life.
The study, which was recently published in the journal Otolaryngology - Head and Neck Surgery, comes from a team at the University of California, Los Angeles' Jonsson Comprehensive Cancer Center (JCCC).
The researchers say that though surgery and radiation are the "traditional treatments" for the disease, many types are now treated with a combination of chemotherapy and radiation, termed chemoradiation, in order to preserve tissue and structure.
But despite saving critical tissue, the treatment can affect the ability to swallow normally, which is why Dr. Marilene Wang, who led the 5-year study, helped create a set of prescribed swallowing exercises for patients with head and neck cancer - called a swallow preservation protocol (SPP).
The study, designed to evaluate the SPP, involved patients undergoing swallow therapy before, during and after treatment. Researchers assessed participants' swallowing ability 2 weeks before their treatment, when the team introduced them to the swallowing exercise program.
The SPP involved exercises designed to preserve the range of motion in certain mouth and neck muscles that are involved in swallowing.
Additionally, the exercises were created to counter the formation of extra tissue caused by the radiation, which researchers say can result in loss of swallowing ability.
In total, 85 participants took part from 2007 to 2012, 57 of which followed the SPP and 28 of which did not. The patients ranged from 22 to 91 years of age, and there were more males than females.
Results show that the patients who followed the SPP had a faster return to normal diet and were less likely to have unwanted side effects, such as worsening of diet or narrowing of the throat passage, compared with the patients who did not follow the SPP.
"Our results demonstrate that compliance with swallow therapy during radiation or chemoradiation treatment is beneficial to patients' retaining their ability to swallow after treatment is over," said Dr. Wang.
"The real benefit of this compliance is that patients benefit immediately after treatment, and for a prolonged time afterward. Attending our weekly program, fully committing to the exercises and being monitored by our staff appears to have a significantly measurable effect for these patients."
A study from 2012 revealed that drinking coffee may halve the risk of mouth and throat cancer.