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Difficulty Swallowing

Liz Puris, MS, RD, LDN

Difficulty swallowing, also known as “dysphagia,” can occur for a variety of reasons with cancer diagnosis and treatment, especially those involving the esophagus or head and neck. Common symptoms of dysphagia include pain or inability to swallow, a sensation of food getting stuck, heartburn and/or food regurgitation, coughing with eating and/or drinking and weight loss. Dysphagia is different from hesitance to swallow or eat because of a poor appetite or food aversions.

It is important to let your providers know if you think you are experiencing dysphagia. If needed, they can refer you to a specialist in swallowing (SLP). An SLP can provide swallowing exercises, let you know the safest diet to eat and/or drink, and provide further testing if indicated.

Sometimes your provider will recommend a soft diet, which may feel more manageable. Try the following sweet and/or savory options.

Sweet: smoothies, milkshakes, nutrition supplement drinks, pudding, yogurt, cottage cheese, apple sauce, oatmeal or hot cereal, pancakes and french toast

Savory: stews (crock pots or instant pots work well for breaking up proteins such as chicken, turkey or beef), soups, casseroles, chicken pot pie or shepherd’s pie, cottage cheese with chives, quiche or frittata, scrambled eggs and omelets, fish, mashed potatoes

For extra calories and ease of swallowing, also try adding moisture with sauces and condiments such as barbeque sauce, ketchup and gravies to name a few.

Spinach Oat Smoothie

A smoothie that’s so simple to make you won’t believe how tasty it is.

Guanabana Smoothie

A delightful blend of tropical flavors

Oat & Almond Butter Smoothie with Strawberry

A creamy and filling smoothie that’s perfect for snack or breakfast.

No recipe results found.

If you are experiencing pain with swallowing, it is also important to let your providers know, as they can discuss management options or refer you to a specialist who can help.

In rare cases and with significant swallowing issues, sometimes nutrition support, such as enteral (tube feeding) or parenteral (IV) nutrition may be needed. Your team and dietitian will work with you to establish the best plan for you.