Anything that we eat and nourish and that sustains life is food. Generally, cancer patients face several difficulties once they are diagnosed with the disease, like pain, infertility, dependency, financial challenges, and also eating challenges.
Though cancer patients are advised to eat food with proteins like lean meat, fish, chicken, nuts, seeds, beans and dairy products, they cannot eat well because of sickness, nausea, loss of appetite, taste changes, diarrhea, constipation and above all, difficulty in swallowing.
Swallowing Difficulties (Dysphagia) in Cancer Patients
Swallowing food is a major complication in cancer patients. Most of the times, this difficulty is experienced with patients having head and neck cancers. The difficulty is related to the impact of the tumor, chemotherapy, radiotherapy and other similar therapies. Sometimes to swallow saliva also becomes difficult.
Causes of Dysphagia:
- A tumor in the head or neck can block the throat, and food or liquid does not pass through it.
- Radiotherapy also causes swallowing problems. It can narrow the swallowing passage
- Chemotherapy side effects are temporary and cause loss of appetite and the desire to eat
- Surgery can remove structures in the head, neck or esophagus and make swallowing difficult
Three disorders cause Dysphagia:
Neurological conditions are stroke ( the most common cause of Dysphagia); traumatic brain injury and Parkinson disease
Three phases of Dysphagia are
- Oral preparatory phase
- Pharyngeal phase
- esophageal phase
Impact of Not Eating:
- Dehydration, which leads to renal function.
- Food intake is reduced may lead to malnutrition.
- Resistance power decreases which leads to infection.
- This may start to nasal feeding and may become to eat later.
- Difficulties in speaking, eating, and drinking might affect the patient emotionally. They can put the patient and their family members in social isolation, as patients may refuse to eat in public.
- Results in weight loss, this causes the patient and family members to worry.
What Can be Done to Cope with Eating Habits in a Cancer Patient?
- Speak to the treating doctor about the quantity of food consumption.
- Some medicines might help to decrease nausea, and help the food to be swallowed quickly.
- A nutritionist can suggest a few tips.
- Nutritious drinks and shakes can help.
- Eating with others will help to eat more.
- Eating small quantities of food and snacks helps.
What to Eat, if The Cancer Patient Does Not Have a Good Appetite?
- It’s essential that the cancer patient eats the required calories, proteins and fluid.
- Schedule the eating time.
- Eat more when you are hungry, especially in the mornings.
- Drink fluids half an hour before meals, this way you can eat more calories.
- Pleasant atmosphere during mealtime like listen to soft music, the ambience should be pleasing- candlelight dinner.
- Avoid certain perfumes whose smell you dislike.
- Keep snacks like Cheese, ice creams, canned fruit with a lot of syrup, dried fruits, nuts, muffins, chocolate milk handy. All these are foods with the required high calories and do not need any preparation.
- Cold foods like pasta, fish, chicken, egg, salads that interest the patients.
- Taking multivitamin tablets is advised.
- Go for a walk, one hour before so that you feel hungry.
- Eat what you like at any time of the day.
- Have a snack before going to bed.
When to Call for Help?
If the patient does not eat the whole day or for more days, then call the doctor. Loses weight; has pain while eating; doesn’t pass urine the entire day, or the urine emits a foul smell, and the colour is dark; vomits the whole day.
The treating doctor can take several tests to know about the muscular activity, like making the patient swallow solid food or a pill coated with barium, or examine the throat with a special camera, a CT scan, series of X- rays, MRI scan before treating.
Dysphagia Can be Treated in Many Ways
- Through exercise
- Postures, turning of the head, tucking of the chin,
- Sometimes a gastroenterologist stretches a tight area of the throat or esophagus, to help the food to pass through.
- Avoid drinking water or liquids with meals.
- The doctor refers to a speech or swallowing therapist.
- A few exercises are taught to help to coordinate the swallowing muscles and to restimulate the nerves that help in swallowing
- New swallowing techniques can be taught to help the patient to place the food in the mouth and to swallow
- An endoscopy can be done to stretch and expand the width of the esophagus
- If there is a tumor, surgery is done to clear the esophagus path
- Can be treated by oral medicines as well
- A special liquid diet is recommended
- A feeding tube can also be given to help to swallow
There are Different Surgeries That are Administered
- Laparoscopy Heller myotomy: The muscle at the lower end of the oesophagus is cut to open it, and food is released into the stomach.
- Peroral endoscopic myotomy: The muscle at the lower end of the oesophagus is cut to create a lining of the oesophagus.
- Two more surgeries are there to help the food to be sent into the stomach- esophageal dilation and stent replacement.
Changing One’s Lifestyle and a Few Home Remedies
- Eating small quantities break the food into small portions and chewing thoroughly and slowly.
- Avoid foods that trouble like sticky foods- peanut butter.
- Avoid the consumption of alcohol and smoking.
Awareness of Dysphagia:
Many people are not aware of what Dysphagia means, since it’s a medical term most of them do not know that it means difficulty in swallowing food. So in some places, Dysphagia Awareness Week is conducted. JUNE is considered National Dysphagia month in some countries. Even then, many people are still unaware of this term, the causes and treatment.
So, the community at large must be educated about this swallowing disorder.
Brochures, pamphlets, seminars newsletters T-shirts with the words Dysphagia means difficulty in swallowing must be distributed. All this needs to be taken up religiously.