Cancer Survivor - Swallowing Therapy: June 17, 2011

Approximately 85% of head and neck cancer patients experience a swallowing disorder. Many times it leaves them unable to eat and relying on a feeding tube to live.

Thomas Highley has three things on his wish list:

“Just give me some margaritas, beer and apple pie and I'll be fine,” Highly says.

Ten years ago he was treated for squamish cell cancer of the head and neck. The radiation treatment damaged his throat. He hasn’t eaten in years.

“Everything I eat or drink is fed through a feeding tube.”

Three times a week Highey works with Lee Memorial Health System therapist Stacey Brill.

“The first thing I do with any of my swallowing patients is I do a modified barium swallow, so I want to identify where the breakdown in the swallow is,” Brills says.

Relearning to eat involves strengthening the muscles that allow us to swallow. Therapy includes exercising the throat and neck muscles along with electrical stimulation.

“When you swallow normally your muscles will contract so the machine’s going to make them contract and then the object is to swallow as much as you can so you re-train the muscle,” Brill explains.

The goal for swallowing therapy is to get patients off feeding tubes and on the least restrictive diet possible.

The rehab clinic at Gulf Coast Medical Center has a 92% success rate.

“You don't realize how much of your social network is oriented to eating and drinking until you lose the ability to swallow,” Highley says. “And that frankly is the bigger issue at least with me than the issue of not being able to eat.”