Cancer can be tough to swallow

May 15, 2012 | by City of Hope Staff

Photo of Digital Swallowing Workstation Digital Swallowing Workstation (Photo courtesy Kay Elemetrics)

Swallowing seems automatic — something no one has to think about, like breathing or blinking. But for countless cancer patients, trying to take a gulp results in what’s called dysphagia — difficulties including gagging, coughing, dryness or pain.

The radiation therapy that knocks down cancers in the head and neck can often damage healthy tissue, too. And it takes more than 50 different muscles and nerves in the area working in perfect harmony to push food and fluid from the mouth to the stomach. That leaves a lot of room for error when it comes to swallowing.

City of Hope now is one of the few centers in California with a high-tech system that can help. Called the Digital Swallowing Workstation, the technology enables speech and language pathologists to watch what happens as a patient tries to swallow.

Tracing the process step by step, experts and patients can see which tissues aren’t working right during the swallowing process. That information leads to a sharing the right swallowing exercises or strategies along with educational resources that can make it easier for patients to enjoy eating again.

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