Author: John Malinowski, Marian Cancer Care

Question: How can nutrition and exercise improve quality of life for head and neck cancer patients?

Head and neck cancers affect more than 52,000 Americans each year and account for about 5% of new cancer cases worldwide. Treatment of head and neck cancer with concurrent chemo radiotherapy with curative intent may cause side effects leading to deterioration of long-term quality of life and disability that persists years after treatment.

Many head and neck cancer patients experience treatment related side effects such as; difficulty swallowing, difficulty with speech, loss of taste or smell and unintended weight loss which often can be attributed to decreased muscle mass.

There are a few things that you can do to try helping to maintain your body weight during treatment. Nutrition can be one tool to help ensure you are taking in enough calories and the right nutrients to help your body fight the cancer.

Often when undergoing cancer treatments our body has an increased demand of caloric intake. This can be a challenge to increase your calories while undergoing treatment so try eating several smaller meals throughout the day, maybe even every 2-3 hours. With each meal try to incorporate some carbohydrates, fats, and protein.

Make sure you are intentional about chewing your food. You can try to chew each bite 50 times or trying to incorporate softer texture foods can make it easier to swallow. Steaming or boiling vegetables rather than eating raw may help. Softer foods like scrambled eggs, egg salad, soups or stews, oatmeal or cream of wheat, tofu, milk, yogurt, cottage cheese, casseroles, mashed potatoes or macaroni and cheese are just a few options.

Knowing that your body requires an increase in protein intake during treatment think about having snacks with protein close by. Having Greek yogurt or pre-made smoothies like Ensure or Reason can be a quick high protein snack.

It is becoming widely known that exercising while going through treatment can help reduce symptoms like fatigue, nausea and anxiety or depression however a more important side effect a head or neck cancer patient may need to think about is the loss of body weight or muscle mass.

Incorporating an exercise routine which involves resistance exercises at a moderate intensity for your major muscle groups can help you maintain the muscle mass you have which can help you continue to perform the daily activities you want and need to do. It is also important to work smaller muscles of the neck to maintain function of swallowing and speech. A few exercises to try are:

Effortful Swallow – Collect saliva on your tongue then press your tongue hard against the roof of your mouth and swallow deliberately. Do three sets of 25 aiming for one swallow every 10 seconds.

Straw against resistance – Place a straw between your lips as if you were going to take a sip of liquid. Place a finger partially over the opening on the bottom of the straw and suck in. Feel your lips wrap around the straw tight! Do three sets of 10 repetitions.

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