What can be expected with radiation therapy for throat cancer?

Much of what can be expected during cancer treatment depends on the specific individual. Many treatments place some burden on a person’s body. This is usually temporary, but requires a period of recovery. People who generally are doing fairly well are more resilient and recover more quickly. Those who generally are feeling exhausted and without energy may be more affected by the treatment and have a harder time recovering. It’s important to explore such issues with the health care team, who can offer suggestions that may help in recovery. The health care providers have the information that will help in balancing the burdens and benefits of treatments.

With radiation therapy, treatment can have both local and general (systemic) effects. Local effects are in the area where the radiation is focused; general effects are the impact on the person’s overall condition.

Commonly the local effects of radiation are inflammation or irritation. For throat cancer, the inflammation and irritation can affect the skin on the head and neck, or the lining of the mouth or throat. If the lining of the mouth or throat are affected then the person can experience dry mouth, dental problems, hoarseness and changes to the person’s sense of taste. The radiation therapy team has ways to help with these symptoms. They include skin treatments, mouth rinses, and sometimes painkillers if there’s discomfort.

Radiation therapy for throat cancer can also affect a person’s ability to swallow. The inflammation and irritation in the mouth and throat can cause pain and burning during swallowing. Unfortunately, there can be long-term complications also, such as decreased saliva production and stiffening of the tissues and muscles needed for normal swallowing. Speech-language specialists can assess the ability to swallow and treat any issues that might arise. A nutritionist or dietician can provide advice and suggestions about food texture and other nutritional concerns.

The general effects of radiation therapy can vary. Most commonly, people may feel tired or fatigued. Some people feel nausea, which can be very effectively treated with new antinausea medications.