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Eating after salivary gland cancer

Men and women discussing salivary gland cancer

This page tells you about how salivary gland cancer and treatments may affect eating and drinking. There is information about


A quick guide to what’s on this page

Eating after salivary gland cancer

Many people have very few problems after salivary gland cancer treatment. The problems you are likely to have depend on the treatment you have had. They usually last for a few weeks after treatment finishes. After surgery, pain and numbness can make eating and chewing difficult for a few weeks afterwards but this improves for most people.

The problems you may have include

  • A dry mouth after radiotherapy – this can make eating and talking uncomfortable
  • Loss of taste – radiotherapy and chemotherapy may affect your taste buds
  • Weight problems – once you finish treatment you may need to build yourself up. It can help to eat little and often. If you find it difficult to eat your doctor can prescribe a liquid food which contains all the nutrients you need
  • Sweating of the face when you eat – this is called Frey’s syndrome. If you have it and find it difficult to cope, talk to your doctor about treatments that can help

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



Dry mouth

If you just have surgery for your cancer, you probably won’t notice a great deal of difference in how moist your mouth is after surgery. Your other salivary glands will make enough saliva to keep your mouth moist.

After radiotherapy to the head and neck area a dry mouth can make eating and talking uncomfortable. Your doctor can prescribe artificial moisteners for your mouth and stimulants for your salivary gland if it is a problem for you. People who have a dry mouth often find it helps to sip water regularly and carry a bottle of water with them all the time. It is important to try to keep your mouth moist. A dry mouth can make you more likely to get an infection or tooth decay. So it is important to have regular dental check ups.


Loss of taste

Radiotherapy and some chemotherapy drugs may affect your taste buds. You may notice a change in how food tastes. Some people say their food has a bitter, metallic or salty taste. Or that all food tastes the same. This usually improves over time but for a very few people it can be permanent. There is more information about loss of taste and tips on how to cope with taste changes in the mouth problems section.


Weight problems

Some people have lost weight by the time they are diagnosed with cancer. You may have pain when you are chewing or swallowing, which has put you off eating. It can also be difficult to eat during treatment. Once treatment finishes you may need to build yourself up again. This can be difficult if you are still off your food.

If you need to put on weight, remember to choose full fat versions of food such as milk and yoghurt rather than the low fat versions you may normally choose. You may also find that it helps to eat little and often, rather than trying to cope with a whole plateful in one go. If you are finding it difficult to eat, your doctor can prescribe liquid food, which contains all the vitamins, proteins and carbohydrates you need for a balanced diet. They can also refer you to a dietician. 

There is more information and some tips for adding hidden calories in the diet problems section.


Sweating of the face when you eat

This is called Frey’s syndrome or gustatory sweating. It can happen after surgery to remove a parotid gland tumour. Between 5 and 50 out of 100 people (5 to 50%) have Frey’s syndrome after surgery. When your surgeon removes the parotid gland they will also cut the nerves in the area around it. As part of the healing process, the nerves that control saliva production sometimes link to the nerves that control sweating on the side of the face you have surgery. This means that when you eat, rather than producing saliva you produce sweat and you may also feel warm and have some reddening on the affected side of the face.

For most people the sweating is very mild and doesn’t need treatment. If you do have it and find it difficult to cope, talk to your doctor. There are treatments that can help. The treatments include creams that you put on your face to help stop the sweating and Botox injections into the area. You can have the injections more than once if they don't work or stop working. Very rarely your doctor may suggest surgery.


Other problems

After the first week, most people have very few problems. The problems you are likely to have depend on the treatment you have had. Surgery to your mouth or jaw can cause pain and numbness in the area, which can make chewing difficult. You may not be able to move your lips very well which makes it difficult to keep food in your mouth when eating. Once you have healed and the pain has eased, you should be able to chew normally again. This usually takes about 4 weeks. Until then you may need to have a soft diet. If you have numbness from damage to the nerves in your head and neck, problems with chewing may last longer. In some cases, people need to have reconstructive surgery or a dental prosthesis put inside their mouth to help them chew and swallow. Your own surgeon is the best person to talk to about this if you are worried.

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Updated: 4 August 2014