Skip to content

Cancer Health Center

Font Size

Oral Complications of Chemotherapy and Head/Neck Radiation (PDQ®): Supportive care - Health Professional Information [NCI] - Conditions Affected By Both Chemotherapy and Head / Neck Radiation


Oral nutrition is reinstituted after treatment has concluded and the radiated site has adequately healed. Oral nutrition often requires a team approach. The assistance of a speech and swallowing therapist to assess for any swallowing dysfunction resulting from surgery or treatment is often necessary and beneficial in easing the transition back to solid foods. The number of tube feedings can be decreased as a patient's oral intake increases, with tube feeding being discontinued when 75% of a patient's nutrition needs are being met orally. Although most patients will resume adequate oral intake, many will continue to experience chronic complications such as taste changes, xerostomia, and varying degrees of dysphagia that can affect their nutritional status and quality of life.[20,21]


Cancer patients undergoing high-dose chemotherapy and/or radiation therapy can experience fatigue related to either the disease or its treatment.[24] These processes can produce sleep deprivation or metabolic disorders that collectively contribute to compromised oral status. For example, the fatigued patient will likely have impaired compliance with mouth care protocols designed to otherwise minimize risk of mucosal ulceration, infection, and pain. In addition, biochemical abnormalities are likely involved in many patients. The psychosocial component can also play a major role, with depression contributing to overall fatigue. (Refer to the PDQ summary on Fatigue for more information.)


  1. Jensen SB, Mouridsen HT, Reibel J, et al.: Adjuvant chemotherapy in breast cancer patients induces temporary salivary gland hypofunction. Oral Oncol 44 (2): 162-73, 2008.
  2. Jensen SB, Pedersen AM, Vissink A, et al.: A systematic review of salivary gland hypofunction and xerostomia induced by cancer therapies: prevalence, severity and impact on quality of life. Support Care Cancer 18 (8): 1039-60, 2010.
  3. Nguyen NP, Moltz CC, Frank C, et al.: Dysphagia following chemoradiation for locally advanced head and neck cancer. Ann Oncol 15 (3): 383-8, 2004.
  4. Langendijk JA, Doornaert P, Verdonck-de Leeuw IM, et al.: Impact of late treatment-related toxicity on quality of life among patients with head and neck cancer treated with radiotherapy. J Clin Oncol 26 (22): 3770-6, 2008.
  5. Logemann JA, Rademaker AW, Pauloski BR, et al.: Site of disease and treatment protocol as correlates of swallowing function in patients with head and neck cancer treated with chemoradiation. Head Neck 28 (1): 64-73, 2006.
  6. Pauloski BR, Rademaker AW, Logemann JA, et al.: Pretreatment swallowing function in patients with head and neck cancer. Head Neck 22 (5): 474-82, 2000.
  7. Kronenberger MB, Meyers AD: Dysphagia following head and neck cancer surgery. Dysphagia 9 (4): 236-44, 1994.
  8. Platteaux N, Dirix P, Dejaeger E, et al.: Dysphagia in head and neck cancer patients treated with chemoradiotherapy. Dysphagia 25 (2): 139-52, 2010.
  9. Mittal BB, Pauloski BR, Haraf DJ, et al.: Swallowing dysfunction--preventative and rehabilitation strategies in patients with head-and-neck cancers treated with surgery, radiotherapy, and chemotherapy: a critical review. Int J Radiat Oncol Biol Phys 57 (5): 1219-30, 2003.
  10. Curran D, Giralt J, Harari PM, et al.: Quality of life in head and neck cancer patients after treatment with high-dose radiotherapy alone or in combination with cetuximab. J Clin Oncol 25 (16): 2191-7, 2007.
  11. Eisbruch A, Schwartz M, Rasch C, et al.: Dysphagia and aspiration after chemoradiotherapy for head-and-neck cancer: which anatomic structures are affected and can they be spared by IMRT? Int J Radiat Oncol Biol Phys 60 (5): 1425-39, 2004.
  12. Sasse AD, Clark LG, Sasse EC, et al.: Amifostine reduces side effects and improves complete response rate during radiotherapy: results of a meta-analysis. Int J Radiat Oncol Biol Phys 64 (3): 784-91, 2006.
  13. Büntzel J, Glatzel M, Mücke R, et al.: Influence of amifostine on late radiation-toxicity in head and neck cancer--a follow-up study. Anticancer Res 27 (4A): 1953-6, 2007 Jul-Aug.
  14. Langendijk JA, Doornaert P, Rietveld DH, et al.: A predictive model for swallowing dysfunction after curative radiotherapy in head and neck cancer. Radiother Oncol 90 (2): 189-95, 2009.
  15. Murphy BA, Gilbert J: Dysphagia in head and neck cancer patients treated with radiation: assessment, sequelae, and rehabilitation. Semin Radiat Oncol 19 (1): 35-42, 2009.
  16. Bartoshuk LM: Chemosensory alterations and cancer therapies. NCI Monogr (9): 179-84, 1990.
  17. Garrick R: Neurologic complications. In: Atkinson K, ed.: Clinical Bone Marrow and Blood Stem Cell Transplantation. 2nd ed. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2000, pp 958-79.
  18. Silverman S Jr: Complications of treatment. In: Silverman S Jr, ed.: Oral Cancer. 5th ed. Hamilton, Canada: BC Decker Inc, 2003, pp 113-28.
  19. Ripamonti C, Zecca E, Brunelli C, et al.: A randomized, controlled clinical trial to evaluate the effects of zinc sulfate on cancer patients with taste alterations caused by head and neck irradiation. Cancer 82 (10): 1938-45, 1998.
  20. Robinson CA: Enteral nutrition in adult oncology. In: Elliott L, Molseed LL, McCallum PD, eds.: The Clinical Guide to Oncology Nutrition. 2nd ed. Chicago, Ill: American Dietetic Association, 2006, pp 138-55.
  21. Kagan SH, Sweeney-Cordes E: Head and neck cancers. In: Kogut VJ, Luthringer SL, eds.: Nutritional Issues in Cancer Care. Pittsburgh, Pa: Oncology Nursing Society, 2005, pp 103-16.
  22. Beer KT, Krause KB, Zuercher T, et al.: Early percutaneous endoscopic gastrostomy insertion maintains nutritional state in patients with aerodigestive tract cancer. Nutr Cancer 52 (1): 29-34, 2005.
  23. Tyldesley S, Sheehan F, Munk P, et al.: The use of radiologically placed gastrostomy tubes in head and neck cancer patients receiving radiotherapy. Int J Radiat Oncol Biol Phys 36 (5): 1205-9, 1996.
  24. Visser MR, Smets EM: Fatigue, depression and quality of life in cancer patients: how are they related? Support Care Cancer 6 (2): 101-8, 1998.

This information is produced and provided by the National Cancer Institute (NCI). The information in this topic may have changed since it was written. For the most current information, contact the National Cancer Institute via the Internet web site at http:// cancer .gov or call 1-800-4-CANCER.

WebMD Public Information from the National Cancer Institute

Last Updated: May 28, 2015
This information is not intended to replace the advice of a doctor. Healthwise disclaims any liability for the decisions you make based on this information.
Next Article:

Today on WebMD

Colorectal cancer cells
New! I AM Not Cancer Facebook Group
Lung cancer xray
See it in pictures, plus read the facts.
sauteed cherry tomatoes
Fight cancer one plate at a time.
Ovarian cancer illustration
Real Cancer Perspectives
Jennifer Goodman Linn self-portrait
what is your cancer risk
colorectal cancer treatment advances
breast cancer overview slideshow
prostate cancer overview
lung cancer overview slideshow
ovarian cancer overview slideshow
Actor Michael Douglas