Duke Health Logo According to the American Cancer Society, more than 70,000 people will develop some form of head and neck cancer in 2011. Those subjected to surgical treatment may face significantly changing facial structure. Experts from the Duke Cancer Institute claim that majority of the locally advanced head and neck cancer patients completing treatment with chemotherapy and radiation do not lose the ability to speak clearly and swallow comfortably.

A retrospective study was triggered on 184 patients suffering from advanced but treatable head or neck cancers. All the participants underwent chemotherapy along with carboplatin and paclitaxel for a period of two months. Patients then received additional chemotherapy with radiation for over a ten-week period. Investigators made some subjects to go through minor surgery for excluding simple tumors or lymph nodes in their necks. With the help of a four-point scale, the patients’ ability to speak and swallow from six weeks to six years after all treatments had completed were registered.

Patients were analyzed for three years post-treatment and 85 percent were probably able to speak normally while 63 percent could swallow without difficulty. Older patients reported worse results than younger ones. It seems that history of smoking and presence of tumors located directly on or near the larynx were related to poorer speech post-treatment. Joseph K. Salama, MD, an assistant professor of radiation oncology at Duke and the corresponding author of the study and colleagues predict that women develop poorer speech than men.

Factors associated with worse swallowing outcomes supposedly comprised age, poor overall health, the specific area where the cancer appeared and planned surgery on the neck following the completion of chemotherapy and radiation therapy. Patients with better long-term speaking and swallowing appeared more likely to have better swallowing before and shortly after treatment. The study suggests that early evaluation post treatment can be a beneficial tool for doctors as well as patients in anticipating the possibility of long-term problems

The study was published in the December 20 issue of the Archives of Otolaryngology and Head and Neck Surgery.