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Eating after mouth cancer

Men and women discussing mouth cancer

This page is about how mouth and oropharyngeal cancer may affect your eating and drinking. There is information about

 

A quick guide to what's on this page

Eating after mouth or oropharyngeal cancer

It can be quite difficult to cope with the changes to eating that mouth or oropharyngeal cancer can cause. But support is available for you.

Difficulty swallowing or chewing

After radiotherapy you will probably have difficulty swallowing for a while. Surgery to the mouth area will make eating and swallowing difficult until you recover. You may have a tube into your stomach for liquid feeds. You may also have difficulty chewing. There is information about a soft diet in the coping with cancer section.

Dry mouth

Radiotherapy to your mouth often makes your mouth dry. Some people find the dryness is permanent. Your doctor can prescribe artificial moisteners for your mouth or stimulants for your salivary glands. You may find that it helps to carry a bottle of water with you all the time, so you can keep taking small sips.

Changes in taste and smell

You may notice changes in the way your food tastes. Try eating different foods, or meals with varied textures.

After your treatment, you need to build yourself up again. Eating little and often is easiest to cope with. You could ask your doctor to prescribe you some meals in a drink. A dietician will be able to help you plan a suitable diet and can give advice on supplements.

 

CR PDF Icon You can view and print the quick guides for all the pages in the Living with mouth cancer section.

 

 

Difficulty swallowing

Radiotherapy to the mouth and neck can make your throat very sore. You will almost certainly have difficulty swallowing for a while. This can be very hard to cope with and may get you down. If your mouth and throat are very sore from radiotherapy, your doctor will give you strong painkillers. Your nurse can also give you a protective coating gel which helps to protect your mouth. Let your doctor or specialist nurse know if your pain is not controlled. Your treatment team can adjust your painkiller dose or try different types.

Surgery involving your jaw, mouth, throat or tongue will make eating and swallowing difficult until you recover. Swelling after surgery may also cause problems. After large operations, you will most likely have a tube into your stomach for liquid feeds. This will normally be a nasogastric tube. Or if you have had a hole made into your throat (a stoma), the tube will go through this opening. Later this hole may act as your speech valve. If you have a lot of swelling and it is difficult to move your tongue, you may need to have a gastrostomy (PEG) tube put directly into your stomach.

Remember that even if you are not eating, it is very important to keep your mouth and teeth clean. This will help to stop infection developing and will help you to feel better.

You may find that a soft diet is easier to manage if you have a painful throat. We have information about a soft diet, which includes ideas about the foods you can eat. It also includes information about how to adapt your favourite meals. A speech and language therapist will help you to be able to swallow well.

 

A dry mouth

Radiotherapy to your mouth and oropharyngeal area often causes a dry mouth. This is called xerostomia (pronounced zero-stow-mee-a). It may last for several months but some people find that the dryness is permanent. It can make eating and talking very uncomfortable. If you have trouble with a dry mouth, your doctor or nurse can prescribe artificial moisteners for your mouth or stimulants for your salivary glands. You may find that it helps to carry a bottle of water with you all the time. You can then keep taking small sips to moisten your mouth. 

Keeping your mouth moist makes you more comfortable but also reduces the chances of infection or tooth decay. You will need to have regular check ups with your dentist to check that your gums and teeth are healthy.

There is some evidence to suggest that treatment with acupuncture can help with a dry mouth after radiotherapy to the head and neck area.

There is information about treating a dry mouth in the section about mouth problems.

 

Loss of taste

Radiotherapy and some chemotherapy drugs or biological therapy drugs may also affect your taste buds. You may notice changes in the way your food tastes. Some people say that their food has a metallic, bitter or salty taste. Other people say that all food tastes the same.

If you have had surgery for tongue cancer your tongue may feel numb afterwards and your sense of taste may be reduced or lost. There is more information about loss of taste and tips on how to cope with taste loss in the section about coping physically with cancer.

 

Weight loss

People have often lost quite a bit of weight during treatment for mouth or oropharyngeal cancer. After your treatment, you need to build yourself up again. But this can be difficult if you are still having trouble eating. There are some tips for adding calories to food in the diet and cancer section.

You (or whoever usually prepares your meals) may need to buy higher calorie versions of some foods for a while. Remember to buy whole milk and full fat versions of yoghurts for example.

If you really have a poor appetite, eating little and often is easier to cope with than a huge plate full. Ask your doctor to prescribe you some nutritional supplements. These are drinks that have all the vitamins, protein and carbohydrate that you need for a balanced diet. If you are trying to put on weight, you can sip these drinks through the day as well as eating meals. They come in many flavours, both savoury and sweet. 

You can also get powdered protein or carbohydrate supplements to sprinkle on foods and drinks. A dietitian will be able to help you plan a suitable diet and give advice about supplements. There is information about liquid diet supplements in the diet problems and cancer section.

 

Difficulty chewing

If you have had surgery to the inside of your mouth or jaw you may have pain or numbness, which makes chewing difficult. You may not be able to move your lips very well, which can make it difficult to hold food in your mouth when eating. Once your mouth has healed and the pain has eased you should be able to chew properly again. But until then you will need to eat a soft diet, probably for a few weeks or even longer. 

If you have numbness due to damage to the nerves in the head and neck, your problems with chewing may last longer. In some cases, people need to have reconstructive surgery or a new mouth structure created (called a dental prosthesis) to put inside their mouth to help them chew and swallow.

 

Changes in your sense of smell

Some types of surgery and radiotherapy for mouth or oropharyngeal cancer will damage your sense of smell. Loss of smell can sometimes lead to loss of appetite and weight because it is no longer as enjoyable to eat.

You can try different things to make eating more enjoyable again. Try eating different types of foods. Or try eating different textured foods together in one meal, such as mashed potato and lightly cooked vegetables. You can find more tips in our eating problems section.

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Updated: 21 October 2014