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Eating

Mouth and oropharyngeal cancer and its treatment can affect your eating and drinking. Get some advice on what can help.

Difficulty swallowing

Radiotherapy to your head or neck can make your throat very sore. Eating might be difficult or painful for a while. And it is likely that swallowing will be hard. Your doctor will give you strong painkillers to help with this. Your team can also give you a gel to protect your mouth.

Surgery involving the jaw, mouth, throat, or tongue will make eating and swallowing difficult. The area will recover when the swelling goes down. 

You might need to have a tube into your stomach for liquid feeds. This might be a tube:

  • from your nose to your stomach (nasogastric tube)
  • directly into your stomach (gastrostomy or PEG tube)
  • through an opening in your throat (stoma) if you have one

Teeth cleaning

Even if you are not eating, it is very important to keep your mouth and teeth clean. This helps to stop infection. It could also help you feel a bit better. 

Soft diet

You might find it more comfortable to eat a soft diet if your mouth or throat is sore.

Dry mouth

Radiotherapy to your head or neck often causes a dry mouth. This is called xerostomia. For many people this improves several months after treatment. For some people it can be permanent. Eating and talking can be very uncomfortable. Your doctor can prescribe artificial saliva (spit) to moisten your mouth. 

You might find it comfortable to carry some water with you to keep your mouth moist. It can also reduce the risk of infection or tooth decay. 

Go for regular dental check ups to check your teeth and gums are healthy. 

Some research studies show accupuncture can help with a dry mouth after radiotherapy. 

Loss of taste

Changes to your taste can start after radiotherapy, chemotherapy, or biological therapy. Food might have a metalic, bitter or salty taste. Or all foods might taste the same. 

Surgery for tongue cancer might make your tongue feel numb and can reduce your sense of taste. 

Weight loss

It is common to lose weight during treatment for mouth and oropharyngeal cancer. After treatment, you will need to build yourself up again. These suggestions might help:

  • use high calorie versions of food you usually eat (such as whole milk or full fat yogurts)
  • try eating little portions regularly (especially if your appetite is poor or eating is painful) 
  • try some nutritional supplements (you can get soups, jelly, ice lollies, puddings, milkshakes and juices)
  • try powdered protein or carbohydrate to sprinkle on meals and drinks 
Ask your doctor or nurse about seeing a dietitian for advice about eating and drinking.

Difficulty chewing

Surgery inside your mouth or jaw might make your mouth numb or painful. This makes chewing difficult. You might find it hard to move your lips or hold food in your mouth when eating. You might need to eat a soft diet for a few weeks while your mouth heals. After some time, usually you can chew again normally. 

Numbness might be due to damage to the nerves in your head and neck. In this case difficulty with chewing might last longer. 

Some people need to have reconstructive surgery after cancer surgery. Or you might need a new mouth structure (dental prothesis) to put in your mouth to help you chew and swallow. 

Loss of smell

Surgery or radiotherapy for mouth and oropharyngeal cancer can damage your sense of smell. This can lower your appetite and weight. 

It can be very helpful to experiement with different textured foods in a meal (such as mashed potato and lightly cooked vegetables) if eating is less enjoyable. 

Last reviewed: 
21 Oct 2014
  • Cancer: Principles and practice of oncology (9th edition)
    VT De Vita, S Hellman and SA Rosenberg
    Lippincott, Williams and Wilkins, 2011.

  • Head and Neck Cancer: Multidisciplinary Management Guidelines 4th edition

    British Association of Otorhinolaryngology, 2011

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