Swallowing after chest radiotherapy | Cancer Research UK
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Swallowing after chest radiotherapy

Nurse and patients talking about cancer

This page tells you about how to cope with difficulty swallowing during and after radiotherapy to your chest. There is information about


Swallowing problems during chest radiotherapy

Radiotherapy treatment for cancer in the chest may cause swelling and soreness in the throat. During and after radiotherapy to this area, your chest may feel tight for a while. This side effect usually starts with a feeling of a lump in the throat when you swallow. Then it may get difficult to swallow solid foods.

If you are having a short course of treatment for advanced cancer, you may not have any problems. Some advanced cancers are treated with a single treatment of radiotherapy. This type of treatment is designed to relieve symptoms and it probably won't make it hard to swallow.

If you are having a longer course of radiotherapy you may find that you have a sore throat or difficulty swallowing after a few days of treatment. The problem is likely to increase and may be at its worst about 10 days to 2 weeks after the radiotherapy has ended. After this time it starts to get better. But if you are having chemotherapy at the same time as radiotherapy, the soreness and difficulty swallowing may be worse and may last longer.

You can ask to see a dietician at the radiotherapy clinic if you are having problems with eating and drinking.


Foods and drinks that can help

A soft, plain diet may help. Try different foods to find out which are easiest to swallow. Avoid foods that may irritate your throat. This includes

  • Dry foods
  • Highly spiced foods
  • Very hot foods or drinks
  • Alcohol, particularly spirits

You may need high calorie drinks to boost your calorie intake, such as

  • Build Up
  • Complan
  • Fortisip

Other high calorie food supplements are available on prescription. Ask your specialist nurse or dietician to advise you. The soreness usually gets better within a few weeks of your treatment finishing, but this depends on how much treatment you've had.


Medicines that can help

Your doctor may prescribe medicines to reduce the soreness, including

  • Painkillers
  • Liquid medicines
  • Gargles with aspirin

You could take painkillers about half an hour before meals to make eating less uncomfortable.


Where to get more information

We have information about coping with diet problems. And you can find details of books and booklets about diet and eating well on our coping with cancer reading list. Some of the booklets listed are free. 

You can also contact the Oesophageal Patients Association who offer free leaflets and support.

We have detailed information about external radiotherapy and internal radiotherapy in this section. There is also detailed information about the side effects of radiotherapy.

We have pages about the other side effects of chest radiotherapy, including

You can phone the Cancer Research UK nurses on freephone 0808 800 4040. The lines are open from 9am to 5pm, Monday to Friday. They will be happy to answer any questions that you have.

Our general organisations page gives details of other people who can provide information about radiotherapy. Some organisations can put you in touch with a cancer support group. Our cancer and treatments reading list has information about books, leaflets and other resources about radiotherapy treatment.

If you want to find people to share experiences with online, you could use Cancer Chat, our online forum.

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Updated: 12 May 2014