Eating after radical head and neck surgery

Last Modified: November 10, 2002


Dear OncoLink "Ask The Experts,"
Is there anything that can be done to regain a proper eating capacity, following operations to remove a tumor in my neck, followed by radical and extensive radiotherapy? I can take liquids and food such as Shepherds Pie, Sponge puddings, scrambled eggs, provided they have a good deal of sauces etc. I cannot eat meat or vegetables unless liquidized. My saliva is not that good.

Can you suggest some dietary tips? 


Katrina Claghorn, MS, RD, Registered Dietitian at the Abramson Cancer Center of the University of Pennsylvania, responds:

First congratulations on doing so well. Unfortunately a common complaint we hear from our patients after their treatments is how difficult it is to eat due to dry mouth, lack of taste and difficulty chewing. You have obviously made a great effort to find the foods that you can tolerate. We would recommend the things that you mentioned (extra liquids, cream sauces and soft foods). Some people find they can eat meat if it is slow-cooked so that the meat flakes and is served with gravy or sauce. Ground meat in a casserole is often tolerated. You can get your vegetables by serving them in a casserole or soufflé. Another option is to drink vegetable juices. The Non-Chew Cookbook by J. Randy Wilson is a full of recipes and suggestions for people experiencing difficulty chewing.

Dry mouth makes eating difficult. We usually recommend the artificial saliva products. Some patients have reported benefit from acupuncture. However, be sure to consult an acupuncturist who is certified and familiar with the special needs of cancer patients. Hyperbaric oxygen treatment, which is still being studied, has shown some promise. Also, we often refer patients to speech therapists who can provide suggestions on swallowing techniques that may help make eating easier.

I have found that the best suggestions for dealing with treatment related eating problems come from people who have personally grappled with the problem. We have a wonderful and very active head and neck cancer support group here at the Abramson Cancer Center. Whenever an issue or problem surfaces the exchange of ideas and suggestions is amazing. You may want to join a support group or seek out others who have gone through similar treatments and find out what worked for them.