Head & Neck


Your head and neck cancer treatment may significantly affect how you eat and, in turn, how your body gets the key nutrients and fluids it requires to heal and help you maintain your daily activities. Learn about the unique nutrition challenges ahead and the options you have to get the nutrients your body needs.

Start by meeting with a registered dietitian. This person will be a valuable resource for you throughout treatment and beyond. If your health care team does not have a dietitian on staff, ask for a referral.

Next, learn all aspects of your treatment plan. It may include more than one type of treatment, so make sure you are aware of all potential side effects. For example, surgery can cause physical changes that affect your ability to eat. Radiation therapy and some drug therapies target cancer cells along with healthy cells, which often results in side effects, such as mouth sores, appetite loss and nausea, that can make it difficult for you to get the nutrients you need. A key goal will be to focus on preventing your treatment from being interrupted due to malnutrition.

Connect with a speech pathologist. Along with helping you learn to speak again, this person recommends how to confidently resume eating in public. Part of healing is returning to the things you love doing that you have long missed. When you are ready to get back out there, these suggestions may make dining out more comfortable and enjoyable:

  • Browse restaurants online and choose one that offers selections you can eat comfortably. 
  • Preselect your entrée before you go. 
  • Call ahead to reserve a table that allows for more privacy. 
  • Ask that your water glass be kept full. 
  • Request half the meal to be served and the remainder placed in a carryout container. Have that portion precut into small pieces. 
  • Promote conversations that aren’t related to cancer to make it a fun social outing for everyone. 

How You Will Get the Nutrition You Need

As you heal, the consistency of the foods you consume will gradually change, with the goal of getting back to solid foods. Every person reacts to treatment differently and will move at their own pace. Your dietitian will work with you to ensure you are getting the right nutrients every step of the way. These are generally the types of diets that are available.

Regular diet : Selections from all the food groups.

Soft diet: Foods that are easier to chew and swallow. They can often be easily mashed with a fork.

Puréed or blenderized diet: Foods that are puréed in a blender so they are easy to swallow.

Full liquid diet: Foods that are smooth and can be poured. You may use a thickening agent to adjust the thickness of the liquid for easier swallowing. Swallow therapy may help.

Clear liquid diet: Liquids that are easily digested and generally see through. Although clear liquids will not offer the nutrition needed to sustain you, they can be used to quench your thirst and may help relieve treatment side effects.

Nutritional supplements: These can accompany any type of diet to help maintain the nutritional status your body needs.

Enteral (EN-teh-rul) nutrition: Also referred to as tube feeding, this is a temporary or permanent method for getting your necessary nutrients. It may be your only source of nutrition or it may supplement the food you eat by mouth. Though the idea of tube feeding may concern you, keep in mind the extra nutrition will help you keep your strength up during treatment.

A tube is placed directly through your abdomen and into the stomach or intestine. The formula that goes into the feeding tube is a liquid mixture to maintain strength and fuel the healing process. It is delivered through the tube directly into your gut. It can be given in several “meals” throughout the day (also called bolus feeding), or a specific amount can be delivered over a certain amount of time through a special pump.

In the hospital, your health care team will manage this for you. If you need to continue (or begin) this type of feeding at home, you will be trained on the process. Medications can sometimes be given through the feeding tube. Ask your doctor or pharmacist about this option. Contact your health care team immediately if you have any of these problems: leaking from the tube, discomfort at the tube site, digestive problems or continued weight loss despite taking in the appropriate amount of formula.

Even though you may not be using your mouth to eat as much or at all, brushing your teeth, flossing and caring for your gums should remain a priority.

Helpful hints

When side effects prevent you from taking in enough nutrition, these suggestions may help.

For appetite loss:

  • Eat smaller portions more frequently. 
  • Carry snacks with you so you can eat when you are hungry.
  • Add extra calories by using butter, oil, mayonnaise, sauces, dressing, gravy, honey, jam, cheese and nut butters. 
  • Add extra protein by eating poultry, meat, fish, eggs, yogurt, cheese and beans. 
  • Drink high-calorie and high-protein juices, shakes and smoothies.
  • Exercise to help stimulate appetite. 

For dehydration:

  • Keep a water bottle with you at all times.
  • Use a straw to make drinking easier. 

For nausea:

  • Eat small snacks frequently. 
  • Keep ginger tea and ginger chews on hand. Ginger can help reduce nausea. 
  • Ask a member of your health care team about medications that may help relieve nausea.
  • Stay hydrated. 

For taste changes:

  • Use a non-alcohol-based mouthwash.
  • Use plastic utensils instead of metal ones.
  • Add extra flavor to foods with spices. 
  • Use sugar-free lemon drops, gum or mints.