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Cancer and its treatments can sometimes have effects that cause a person trouble with swallowing. It may be a short-term side effect of certain treatments, such as chemotherapy or radiation to the throat or chest. It may also be caused by mouth sores, an infection of the mouth or esophagus (the swallowing tube that goes from the throat to the stomach), or other problems. Trouble swallowing, or difficult swallowing is called dysphagia.
Swallowing problems can be caused by different health problems, including certain types of cancer. There can be problems with motor function, meaning messages sent from the brain aren't getting to the esophagus to tell it to swallow. This can be caused by a problem in the brain or nervous system, such as a stroke, nervous system disorder, neuropathy, or tumor affecting the brain. Or, there can be something blocking food or fluids during swallowing, such as a large clump of food, foreign object, a narrowing of the esophagus, or a tumor in or pressing on the esophagus.
People with cancer may have swallowing problems because of side effects of certain treatments. For example, people who have mouth sores (mucositis) due to chemotherapy, targeted therapy, or radiation therapy to the head and neck may have pain when swallowing. Many people who are getting radiation therapy to the head and neck area also have dry mouth due to reduced saliva which can make swallowing difficult.
Other problems, such as having too much saliva, hiccups, heartburn, and indigestion can also make swallowing difficult at times.
The American Cancer Society medical and editorial content team
Our team is made up of doctors and oncology certified nurses with deep knowledge of cancer care as well as journalists, editors, and translators with extensive experience in medical writing.
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Last Revised: February 1, 2020
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