A lecture about life challenges after laryngectomy that includes discussion of late side effects of radiation can be viewed on YouTube.
Individuals with head and neck cancer should receive counseling about the importance of smoking cessation. In addition to the fact that smoking is a major risk factor for head and neck cancer, the risk of cancer in smokers is further enhanced by alcohol consumption. Smoking can also influence cancer prognosis. When smoking is continued both during and after RT, it can increase the severity and duration of mucosal reactions, worsen the dry mouth (xerostomia), and compromise patient outcome. Patients who continue to smoke while receiving RT have a lower long-term survival rate than those who do not smoke.
It is advisable to keep the irradiated area clean and dry, wear loose-fitting clothes to avoid friction injuries, wash the skin with lukewarm water and mild soap (preferably synthetic soaps), and avoid exposure to potential chemical irritants, skin irritants such as perfumes and alcohol-based lotions, direct sun and wind, and local application of lotions or ointments prior to RT that might change the depth of radiation penetration.
There are a number of skin care products that can be used during radiation treatment to lubricate and protect the skin. These include aloe vera-based gels and water-based lotions. Although such preparations may provide symptom relief, none promotes or accelerates healing of the radiation-induced dermatitis.
Mild dermatitis starts improving with 10 days after completing of radiation, while severe dermatitis is associated with prolonged inflammation and healing time, resulting in skin fibrosis.
Dry mouth (xerostomia)
Acceleration of periodontal disease
- Brushing teeth (if soreness of oral mucosa and trismus are present, a small ultrasoft toothbrush can be used).
- Using a fluoridated toothpaste when brushing.
- Flossing once daily.
- Applying a prescription-strength fluoride gel at bedtime to prevent caries.
- Rinsing with a solution of salt and baking soda 4 to 6 times a day (½ tsp salt and ½ tsp baking soda in 1 c warm water) to clean and lubricate the oral tissues and to buffer the oral environment.
- Sipping water frequently to rinse the mouth and alleviate mouth dryness.
- Avoiding foods and liquids with a high sugar content. (Refer to the PDQ summary on Nutrition in Cancer Care for more information.)
Alterations in taste (dysgeusia)
The altered taste and tongue pain gradually dissipate in most patients over a six month period, although in some cases taste recovery is incomplete. Many individuals experience a permanent alteration in their taste.
Pain in the mouth and/or face
· Eating small, frequent meals throughout the day instead of three large meals. Nausea is often worse if your stomach is empty.
· Eating slowly, chewing the food completely, and staying relaxed.
· Eating cold or room temperature foods. The smell of hot or warm foods may induce nausea.
· Avoiding difficult to digest foods, such as spicy foods or foods high in fat or accompanied by rich sauces.
· Resting after eating. When lying down, the head should be elevated about 12 inches.
· Drinking beverages and other fluids between meals instead of drinking beverages with meals.
· Drinking 6-8 ounce glasses of fluid per day to prevent dehydration. Cold beverages, ice cubes, popsicle, or gelatin are adequate.
· Eating more food at a time of the day when one is less nauseous.
· Informing one's health care provider before each treatment session when one develops persistent nausea.
· Treating persistent vomiting immediately as this can cause dehydration.
· Administering anti-nausea medication by a health care provider.
· Small amount of urine
· Dark urine
· Rapid heart rate
· Flushed, dry skin
· Coated tongue
· Irritability and confusion
- Assess and document the level of fatigue daily by using a diary or worksheet to monitor fatigue daily. The fatigue level assessment includes monitoring its severity (none, minor, moderate, advanced) over the times the day.
- Perform regular daily tasks and activities especially during the time of day when feeling less fatigue. (based upon one’s diary or worksheet)
- Maintain a daily exercise program.
- Consult a social worker or psychologist.
- Seek evaluation and treatment of underlying medical and psychological conditions (i.e., anemia, hypothyroidism).
Other side effects
Aside from being bothersome to patients, including making it difficult to eat and speak, there is greater risk of dental cavities and dental disease because saliva helps prevent dental disease.
Patients who experience low function of their salivary gland and xerostomia must maintain excellent oral hygiene to minimize the risk of oral lesions. Periodontal disease can be accelerated and caries can become rampant unless preventive measures are instituted. Multiple preventive strategies should be considered.
Non pharmacological substances that can stimulate salivary flow include acidic or bitter substances, and to a lesser degree sweet substances such as sugar-free hard candy. Chewing sugarless gum can provide both gustatory and tactile also stimuli to salivary flow.
Available pharmacological medications include salivary stimulants (sialagogues), such as pilocarpine, amifostine, and cevimeline. Pilocarpine is the only drug approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for use as a sialogogue (5-mg tablets of pilocarpine hydrochloride) for radiation xerostomia. Preliminary data suggest that acupuncture and hyperbaric oxygen can provides benefit for patients with xerostomia who have some residual salivary gland function.
Dietary change from dry, tough food to moist, softer one can greatly improve nutritional status and quality of life. Use of a humidification especially in the bedroom can also provide some relief.
Osteoradionecrosis of the jaw
Repair of nonrestorable and diseased teeth prior to RT may reduce the risk of this complication. Oral disease should be eliminated pretreatment whenever possible. Dentition that exhibits poor prognosis and is within high-dose radiation fields should be extracted before RT begins. Ideally, at least 7 to 14 days should be allowed for healing before initiation of RT; some have suggested allowing up to 21 days.
Mild osteoradionecrosis can be conservatively treated with debridement, antibiotics, and occasionally ultrasound. Topical antibiotics (e.g., tetracycline) or antiseptics (e.g., chlorhexidine) may contribute to wound resolution. Wherever possible, exposed bone should be covered with mucosa and necrotic bone removed. Analgesics for pain control are often effective. When necrosis is extensive, radical resection, followed by microvascular reconstruction is often used.
Dental prophylaxis can reduce the risk of osteoradionecrosis. Special fluoride treatments may help with dental problems along with brushing, flossing, and regular cleaning by a dental hygienist.
One teaspoon added to 12 oz. of water. The baking soda rinse can be used throughout the day.
Necrosis in the oral cavity
Fibrosis and trismus
Late onset of fibrosis can also occur in the pharynx and esophagus, leading to stricture, and temporomandibular joint problems including mandibular dysfunction. Patients can be instructed in physical therapy interventions such as mandibular stretching exercises and the use of prosthetic aids designed to reduce the severity of fibrosis. It is important that these approaches be instituted before trismus develops. If clinically significant changes develop, several approaches can be considered, including stabilization of occlusion, and use of trigger-point injection and other pain management strategies, muscle relaxants, and tricyclic medications.
Fibrosis of the muscles of mastication can lead to the inability to open the mouth (trismus or lockjaw) which can progress over time. The prevalence of trismus increases with increasing doses of radiation, and levels in excess of 60 Gy are more likely to cause trismus. Generally eating becomes more difficult but articulation is not affected. Radiation of the highly vascularized temporomandibular joint (TMJ) and muscles of mastication can often lead to trismus. Chronic trismus gradually leads to fibrosis.
Trismus impedes proper oral care and treatment and may cause speech/swallowing deficits. Forced opening of the mouth, jaw exercises and the use of a dynamic opening device (TherabiteTM) can be helpful. This device is increasingly used during radiation therapy as a prophylactic measure to prevent trismus. One of the benefits of the Therabite System is that it not only stretches the connective tissue that causes trismus, but also allows for proper mobilization of the temporomandibular joint, thus addressing a secondary cause of pain and tightness.
Early treatment of trismus has the potential to prevent or minimize many of the consequences of this condition. As restriction becomes more severe and likely irreversible, the need for treatment becomes more urgent.
- Cages that fit over the head.
- Heavy springs that fit between the teeth.
- Screws that are placed between the central incisors.
- Hydraulic bulbs placed between the teeth.
Exercise can reduce neck tightness and increases the range of neck motion. One needs to perform these exercises throughout life to maintain good neck mobility. This is especially the case if the stiffness is due to radiation. Receiving treatment by experienced physical therapies who can also break down the fibrosis is very helpful. The earlier the intervention, the better it is for the patient. A new treatment modality using external laser is also available. There are physical therapy experts in most communities who specialize in reducing swelling.
Fibrosis in the head and neck can become even more extensive in those who have had surgery or further radiation. Post radiation fibrosis can also involve the skin and subcutanous tissues, causing discomfort and lymphedema.
Partial or total oropharyngeal stricture can occur in severe cases.
Some laryngectomees may manifest wound healing problems following surgery, especially in areas that have received RT. Some may develop a fistula ( an abnormal connection between the inside of the throat and the skin). Wounds that heal at a slower pace can be treated with antibiotics and dressing changes by specialists.
Read more about lymphedema at the "Lymphedema, neck swelling, pain and numbness after radiation and surgery" page.
Damage to the middle ear (ototoxicity)
Damage to neck structures
Carotid artery stenosis: The carotid arteries in the neck supply blood to the brain. Radiation to the neck has been linked to carotid artery stenosis or narrowing, representing a significant risk for head and neck cancer patients, including many laryngectomees. Stenosis can be diagnosed by ultrasound as well as angiography. It is important to diagnose carotid stenosis early, before a stroke has occurred.
Treatment includes removal of the blockage (endarterectomy), placing a stent (a small device placed inside the artery to widens it) or a prosthetic carotid bypass
Hypertension due to baroreceptors damage: Radiation to the head and neck can damage the baroreceptors located in the carotid artery. These baroreceptors help in regulating blood pressure by detecting the pressure of blood flowing through them, and sending messages to the central nervous system to increase or decrease the peripheral vascular resistance and cardiac output. Some individual treated with radiation develop labile or paroxysmal hypertension.
More information about complications of RT can be found at the National Cancer Institute Web site.