Effect pretty hard to swallow

A TEAM of researchers from St George Hospital have been given a grant worth more than $300,000 to help cancer patients who have — or are at risk of developing — swallowing problems.

New research: Professor Ian Cook and Dr Julia Maclean, of St George Hospital, are hoping a $300,000 grant will help improve the quality of life for cancer patients with swallowing difficulties. Picture: Jane Dyson

New research: Professor Ian Cook and Dr Julia Maclean, of St George Hospital, are hoping a $300,000 grant will help improve the quality of life for cancer patients with swallowing difficulties. Picture: Jane Dyson

The research will receive the funding over three years from the National Health and Medical Research Council.

It is aimed at improving the quality of life for patients undergoing head and neck radiotherapy who have swallowing disorders because of treatment.

Head and neck cancer accounts for about 3.5 per cent of all cancers and is the sixth most common malignancy in Australia. Each year 2500 new cases are diagnosed.

Ian Cook, a gastroenterologist and head of the St George Swallow Centre, said radiotherapy had the potential to damage the nerves and muscles in the throat that are crucial to swallowing.

"Preliminary results confirm our belief that severe swallowing dysfunction is currently both an underreported and under-recognised long-term complication of radiotherapy," he said.

"This non-malignant complication can cause life-threatening lung infections and poor nutrition.

"The fact that severe swallow dysfunction frequently only makes its symptomatic appearance at a time when patients are being reassured that they are cured of their cancer, means that these patients are dropping off the radar at a critical time when they may be at increased risk from swallow-related complications."

Professor Cook said limiting the radiation dose to the muscles used for swallowing could reduce the incidence and severity of dysphagia (swallow dysfunction).

"The St George Hospital Swallow Centre has been studying the causes and treatment of swallowing disorders, from a wide variety of causes, for more than two decades," he said.

"This latest research will assist in identifying patients most susceptible to swallowing-related complications so that they might prevent these problems in future.

"It will also provide evidence on how radiation doses can affect swallowing function and will help in future treatment planning to reduce the incidence and severity of dysphagia and its complications."

GRIM FIGURES

Two-thirds of St George Hospital patients receiving head and neck radiotherapy were found to have swallowing problems (over a seven-year period).

Only 50 per cent of these affected patients had sought help about the problem. 

About 20 per cent of patients died of complications arising from their swallowing dysfunction.