Supportive care

Speech, voice and swallowing

Treatment for head and neck cancer may cause changes to parts of your mouth (lips, teeth, tongue, palate) and/or throat (pharynx, larynx), which can affect your ability to speak and/or swallow. These changes may only last a short time or they may be permanent.

Speech and voice problems can affect your daily life. This may leave you feeling frustrated, distressed or embarrassed particularly if people have trouble understanding your speech.
If you find it hard to swallow (known as dysphagia), you may notice:

  • you need to swallow many times to clear food from your mouth or throat

  • you need to clear your throat or cough while eating

  • it hurts to swallow

  • your voice sounds gurgly after swallowing.

Make sure to drink plenty of water when eating and include gravy or sauces with foods to help you swallow them more easily.

Where can I find support?

If your treatment has caused changes to your speech, voice or swallowing, you can get help from a speech pathologist. A speech pathologist is an expert in difficulties with communication and swallowing. Your doctor may recommend you see a speech pathologist before, during and after your treatment.

Your speech pathologist can:

  • give you exercises or tips to help your speech and voice

  • help you plan other ways of communicating, such as writing or using a computerised voice to speak for you

  • show you how to use devices or aids if you need them

  • show you safe swallowing tricks, such as changing your head position, or the thickness of food/liquids to make it easier to swallow.

You may also get help from a doctor or a dietitian and in some cases they may recommend a feeding tube.