Dysphagia in cancer patients: What to know

The ability to swallow — or to eat and drink what you enjoy most without choking or coughing — is something that many of us take for granted. And most people never think about how they eat or drink until they experience dysphagia, or trouble swallowing.  Many people also believe that if their ability to swallow is compromised because of a cancer diagnosis or its treatment, it will simply get better after treatment is finished. Unfortunately, that is not always the case.  Here are answers to some of the questions I hear most often from patients with dysphagia — and what doctors at MD Anderson are doing to prevent and treat it. What is dysphagia and why do I have it?   Dysphagia is the medical term for “having trouble swallowing.” In cancer patients, it can be caused by the tumor itself (usually in head and neck cancers) — which blocks or narrows the throat passage — or as a side effect of treatment. It generally occurs because a tumor interferes with the ability of the lips, tongue, or throat muscles to move food around the mouth so that it can be chewed and passed to the esophagus. In other cases, the tumor may block the throat so that food and/or liquid cannot pass through it. Radiation therapy can also cause swallowing problems. The effects of radiation — including scarring and fibrosis — build over time, and can reduce the ability of the throat muscles to function properly, even after treatment is finished. Chemotherapy doesn’t generally cause dysphagia, but it can make the effects of radiation worse. And though...