Surgery to help you breathe or eat

Cancers of the mouth and oropharynx can sometimes block a part of your throat, which may affect your breathing and eating. 

You might have an operation to put a hole in your neck if you have difficulty breathing. This is called a tracheostomy and allows you to breathe.

If you have difficulty swallowing you may have a tube put into your stomach. You have liquid food into this tube.

There are different types of feeding tubes.

Helping you breathe

This operation is called a tracheostomy. The surgeon makes an opening (a hole) in the front of your neck into your windpipe (trachea). This allows you to breathe more easily. This hole is called a stoma. 

Having a temporary tracheostomy

Sometimes your surgeon may expect you to have a lot of swelling in the mouth and throat after surgery. In this case you might have a temporary tracheostomy, to help you breathe until the swelling goes down.

The surgeon puts a plastic tube put into the hole to keep it open. The tube is a few centimetres long. Stitches or surgical ribbon, or a cuff keep it in place.

Your nurse will show you how to care for your tracheostomy. They will carefully clean the tracheotomy area, and regularly check it to make sure it is not red or swollen.

With some tracheostomies you may not be able to speak. As you recover your nurse can adjust the tube so you can speak. This can be frustrating and worrying for some people, but your nurse will show you ways to help, such as reading charts and mobile devices. 

Removing a temporary tracheostomy

Your nurse removes the temporary tracheostomy when the swelling has gone down. They put a dressing over the hole.

They will show you how to look after the area until it has healed, this takes about 1 to 2 weeks. You may have a scar in the area where the opening was.

Your nurse will explain everything to you before surgery, so you will know what to expect afterwards.

Feeding tubes

If you have difficulty swallowing, you may need a feeding tube. This means you can have specially prepared liquid feeds through a tube into your stomach or small intestine. There are different types of feeding tubes. 

Gastrostomy tube

A gastrostomy tube is also called a percutaneous endoscopic gastrostomy (or PEG tube). The surgeon puts a tube into your stomach or small intestine through an opening made in your tummy (a stoma).

You might have a PEG tube after surgery until you can eat normally again. Or you may have it as a long term solution if you can't eat because of swallowing problems. 

You can have liquid feeds through your gastrostomy tube for as long as you need them. 

Diagram showing the position of a percutaneous endoscopic gastrostomy (PEG) feeding tube

Nasogastric tube

You might have a different type of feeding tube if your swallowing problems are temporary. This is called a nasogastric tube. The nurse or doctor passes the tube down your nose and throat and into your stomach.

You can have all or some of the food you need through this tube as liquid meals. Once you can swallow more easily, your nurse can take it out. 

Diagram showing the position of a nasogastric tube

You may see a speech and language therapist (SLT) and a dietician before you start treatment if this is likely to affect your swallowing. The SLT can assess your swallowing during and after treatment. And your dietician can help if you are finding it difficult to eat. 

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