New MD Anderson research published in JAMA Otolaryngology Head and Neck Surgery indicates that oral exercises help patients maintain their swallowing and eating ability after undergoing radiation and chemotherapy for head and neck cancers.
Therapy can cause fibrosis, or hardening, of tissues and muscles, which affects critical functions such as swallowing and eating. Side effects can lead to a range of negative consequences including malnutrition, mouth sores and the need for a feeding tube, that cause many patients to stop eating foods during cancer treatment.
The retrospective study enrolled 497 patients with throat cancer who were receiving radiation therapy and chemotherapy between 2002 to 2008.
Researchers examined per oral (PO) status which was defined as: NPO (nothing by mouth, feeding tube dependent), partially PO (tube feeding supplemented by daily oral intake) and fully PO (100% oral intake). They also measured self-reported swallowing exercise adherence.
Returning to regular diet
By adherence to swallowing goals during cancer treatment, the proportion of patients returning to a regular diet after treatment was:
- 65% for those who did neither (no eating nor exercise),
- 77% to 84% for those who maintained some swallowing goals (eat or exercise),
- 92% for patients who met both goals (eating and exercise).
"The primary finding is that both swallowing therapies, eating and exercise, were significantly and independently associated with favorable swallowing outcomes," said Kate Hutcheson, Ph.D., assistant professor in the Department of Head and Neck Surgery. "When we looked at subgroups of patients we found those who both ate and exercised during radiation and chemotherapy had the best outcomes."
The results also highlight the important role speech pathologists play in understanding and preventing negative side effects associated with treatment of the head and neck.
"This study adds guidance to patients and clinicians to help them understand that the best outcomes will be achieved when we motivate our patients not only to continue doing their swallowing exercises, but also to continue eating throughout radiation treatment," Hutcheson said, who's the primary author of the study.
Hutcheson said new data from a clinical trial should become available soon, allowing the researchers to prospectively validate their findings.
A full copy of the study can be viewed here.