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Swallowing after chest radiotherapy

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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 be at its worst about 10 days after you start radiotherapy. It is likely to be better within a fortnight of finishing the treatment. Difficulty swallowing may be worse and can last longer if you are having chemotherapy at the same time as radiotherapy.

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

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
  • Other simple drugs

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


Where to get more information

There is information about coping with diet problems in the section about coping physically with cancer. 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.

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Updated: 4 July 2012