Dear OncoLink "Ask The Experts,"
I have had nasopharyngeal cancer twice 5 years apart. I was successfully treated with radiation therapy both times. I now have a severely damaged soft palate making it impossible to eat solid food and my speech nearly incomprehensible. Can this damage ever be repaired or improve?
Kendra Schaefer, DMD, Assistant Professor in the Department of Oral and Maxillofacial Surgery, Division of Prosthodontics at the University of Pennsylvania, responds:
It is not uncommon for patients like you to develop scarring and atrophy of the soft palate muscle after extensive radiation therapy. Surgery will more than likely NOT be an option for you. Any attempts at surgical repair may cause further damage with worsening of the symptoms. You should be evaluated to see how much soft palate function you have remaining and how much tissue has been lost. A maxillofacial prosthesis called an obturator (a prosthesis used to close an opening) is generally the treatment of choice to help attain closure of the soft palate. You may be a candidate for a palate lift which could allow you to swallow and speak better. Your ultimate result will depend upon if you have any functional movement at all. You may also need significant rehabilitation, including speech and swallowing function after you receive your prosthesis.
You can look for a doctor in your area who knows how to do this procedure on the website for the American Academy of Maxillofacial Prosthetics at www.maxillofacialprosth.org.