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Sharp Health News

Speech pathology for head and neck cancer treatment

Sept. 1, 2016

Speech pathology for head and neck cancer treatment

Speech language pathologist Maria Cordova demonstrates a specific neck stretch used to combat dysphagia, a side effect caused by chemoradiation treatment required for patients with head and neck cancer.

Dysphagia, or difficulty swallowing, is a common side effect of chemoradiation therapy required to treat head and neck cancer; it may be caused by the thickening or scarring of connective tissue found in a person’s mouth and throat. Other side effects of chemoradiation treatment include dry mouth, voice changes, painful swallowing and changes in taste.

To address these symptoms and help patients currently facing head and neck cancer, Sharp HealthCare implemented a Swallow Preservation Protocol that uses swallow therapy exercises to prevent or reduce the severity of dysphagia and other side effects. The therapy is offered at Sharp Chula Vista Medical Center, Sharp Memorial Hospital and Sharp Grossmont Hospital.

“Mitigating or easing the side effects caused by chemoradiation therapy is a very important component of cancer care,” explains Maria Cordova, MS, CCC-SLP, speech language pathologist at Sharp Chula Vista Medical Center. “With this program, we are able to provide quality care, preserve or recover a patient’s swallow function, and improve overall quality of life.”

The program consists of different exercises the patient completes during and after the course of their chemoradiation treatment plan. Patients who take part in the program are less likely to suffer from the side effects associated with dysphagia.

Meant to improve or maintain a person’s swallow function, the exercises used during swallow therapy are performed with a speech language pathologist and include:

  • Jaw exercises to maintain adequate jaw opening
  • Specific neck stretches
  • A variety of swallow exercises

As part of the Swallow Preservation Protocol, patients will receive comprehensive education and training for these exercises during their pre-treatment consultation. Patients also receive tools to track oral intake, and progress in the program; support group information; and other helpful aids in the management of their long-term swallow function.

“I am so proud to be a part of this program at Sharp Chula Vista, working alongside Paul McRae, MA, CCC-SLP, at Sharp Grossmont and Kim Diaz, MS, CCC-SLP, at Sharp Memorial,” says Cordova. “Working in tandem with radiation oncologists, oncology nurses, patient navigators and registered dietitians, our team is able to provide patients with a wide spectrum of care that gives them the ability to maintain good nutrition throughout their radiation therapy and better preserve their swallow function in the long term. That way, they do not have to wait several months after therapy for their swallowing ability to possibly return.”

Pairing in-depth training in swallow therapy with new technology for evaluation and treatment of dysphagia, Sharp is able to better help those who have difficulty swallowing safely. 

Learn more about rehabilitation services offered at Sharp for speech, voice and swallowing.

For the media: To talk with a Sharp speech language pathologist about swallow therapy used during cancer treatment, contact Erica Carlson, senior public relations specialist, at

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