Author: Jozsef Papp, Augusta Chronicle
After getting surgery in April for cancer of the oral cavity, Lenny Schaeffer was having problems opening his mouth wide enough to eat anything larger than a grape.
He went through the whole process: surgery, chemotherapy and radiation therapy. During that process, he lost his ability to open his mouth, and it even affected his speech.
An oncologist and his radiation therapist informed him of a new program, speech therapy, at the Georgia Cancer Center at Augusta University that could help him.
“What the speech therapy program did is basically give me exercises to do to increase the flexibility that I have in my mouth,” he said. “It allows me to eat better, more kinds of food and also improve speech.”
Dr. Sarah Smith, a speech pathologist at the Georgia Cancer Center, said the program is aimed at helping cancer patients like Schaeffer, patients who have cancer of the neck and mouth area and are suffering from exposure to radiation during their treatment. As a National Cancer Center Network Facility, the center was called to have a multidisciplinary approach to treating cancer, Smith said.
Smith was moved to the cancer center in the summer, mainly to keep cancer patients from walking from the center to the hospital because of COVID-19.
“Treating head and neck cancer is very different than treating other types of disabilities,” she said. “When cancer patients come to the cancer center, we offer a variety of providers, right on site, versus trying to drive all over Augusta and figure out how to get a hold of a dietitian or an occupational therapist that understands cancer or speech therapist that understands cancer.”
Smith said they try to engage patients before surgery or treatment so patients can understand what’s going to happen and have peace of mind knowing help is available. She said radiation in the neck and head area can get rid of the cancer, but a lot of patients don’t realize it can cause speech problems and difficulty swallowing.
“Somebody can survive cancer, but that doesn’t mean they’re going to be in the same condition as before the disease. The treatment options all have negative consequences, so we want to be there to restore quality of life,” Smith said. “The goal is that we would see them before they start treatment to discuss what the treatment is going to do to their speech and their swallowing.”
Smith said the reality is that the speech therapy program needs to be rigorous because treating cancer is rigorous. The program requires a lot of work from the patient’s side to combat radiation and all the changes that come from surgery.
Over the past four months, Schaeffer had three sessions with Smith.. He said he was given exercises that have allowed him to eat better and more kinds of food, and his speech has improved.
“After doing the exercises that were given to me, now I can open my mouth to a normal amount so I can pretty much eat any food that I want to, at this time,” he said. “It just helps me speak better because of the enhanced range of motion.”
Schaeffer said he has been very impressed with the program. He said Smith shows that she cares about her patients and is eager to help any of them achieve the results they want.
He encourages those who might have similar programs to learn about the program and get the help they need, just like he did.
“I would recommend anybody that has a need for speech therapy to contact the program at the Georgia Cancer Center and at least do a consult of what may available to them,” he said.