Changes to speech
The ability to talk can be affected by surgery or radiation therapy for head and neck cancer. This may be because of side effects such as swelling and irritation, because of a tracheostomy or laryngectomy, or because other structures have been removed. You may find it hard to speak clearly or notice that your speech is slurred, or you may find your voice has changed. The extent of any changes will vary depending on the location of the cancer, how advanced it was, and the treatment you had.
Talking will take time and practice – it’s natural to feel distressed, frustrated and angry at times. You will need to get used to the way your new voice sounds. You can use the National Relay Service to help you make phone calls.
How to manage changes to speech
- Try non-verbal ways to communicate – gesture, point, nod, smile, mouth words, write things down or ring a bell to call people.
- Use a computer, tablet, mobile phone or notebook to write and send notes.
- Work with a speech pathologist to improve your speech and learn ways to communicate with family and friends. The speech pathologist may give you some exercises to improve the strength and range of motion of the lips, tongue, jaw and larynx.
- Encourage family and friends to be honest if they don’t understand you and to learn new ways to communicate with you. Ask them not to avoid conversation even if it is difficult at first. They may need to be patient and give you time to respond.
- Speak to a counsellor or psychologist if you are finding it difficult to cope with speech changes.
Podcast for people affected by cancer
Download a PDF booklet on this topic.
A/Prof Richard Gallagher, Head and Neck Surgeon, Director of Cancer Services and Head and Neck Cancer Services, St Vincent’s Health Network, NSW; Dr Sophie Beaumont, Head of Dental Oncology, Dental Practitioner, Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre, VIC; Dr Bena Brown, Speech Pathologist, Princess Alexandra Hospital, and Senior Research Fellow, Menzies School of Health Research, QLD; Dr Teresa Brown, Assistant Director, Nutrition and Dietetics, Royal Brisbane and Women’s Hospital, QLD; Lisa Castle-Burns, Head and Neck Cancer Specialist Nurse, Canberra Region Cancer Centre, The Canberra Hospital, ACT; A/Prof Ben Chua, Radiation Oncologist, Royal Brisbane and Women’s Hospital, GenesisCare Rockhampton and Brisbane, QLD; Elaine Cook, 13 11 20 Consultant, Cancer Council Victoria; Dr Andrew Foreman, Specialist Ear, Nose and Throat Surgeon, Royal Adelaide Hospital, SA; Tony Houey, Consumer; Dr Annette Lim, Medical Oncologist and Clinician Researcher – Head and Neck and Non-melanoma Skin Cancer, Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre and The University of Melbourne, VIC; Paula Macleod, Head, Neck and Thyroid Cancer Nurse Coordinator, Northern Sydney Cancer Centre, Royal North Shore Hospital, NSW; Dr Aoife McGarvey, Physiotherapist and Accredited Lymphoedema Practitioner, Physio Living, Newcastle, NSW; Rick Pointon, Consumer; Teresa Simpson Senior Clinician, Psycho-Oncology Social Work Service, Cancer Therapy Centre, Liverpool Hospital, NSW.
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