Using a feeding tube
After surgery or radiation therapy for head and neck cancer, you may find eating and swallowing uncomfortable or difficult. A feeding tube may be inserted to help you get the nutrition you need while your throat heals. This tube is usually temporary, but sometimes it is permanent.
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A feeding tube can help ensure you maintain your weight and energy. It is important to avoid losing a lot of weight during treatment and to have enough nourishment and fluids. If you can’t swallow medicines, check with your doctor, nurse or pharmacist whether these can also be given through the feeding tube. Your health care team will show you how to care for the tube to prevent it leaking or becoming blocked.
They will also let you know when the tube needs to be replaced. If the tube falls out, let your treatment team know immediately. You can help avoid infections by washing your hands before using the tube, and keeping the tube and your skin dry.
If you have a feeding tube, it is still important to brush your teeth and keep your mouth clean even though you are not eating or drinking.
Having a feeding tube inserted is a major change, and it is common to have a lot of questions. Getting used to a feeding tube takes time. Talking to a dietitian or nurse can help, and a psychologist or counsellor can provide emotional support and suggest ways to cope.
A thin tube is put through a nostril, then down the throat and oesophagus into the stomach. This is called a nasogastric or NG tube.
An NG tube is usually used if you need a feeding tube for a short time – for example, for the first few days or weeks after surgery when you’re unable to eat.
A doctor or nurse will put in or remove the NG tube. You will be given specially prepared liquid nutrition through this tube.
A tube is inserted through an opening on your abdomen into the stomach. This is called a gastrostomy tube. It may be used if you need a feeding tube for longer periods, such as in the last weeks of radiation therapy or after a very big operation.
The tube may be inserted by endoscope (percutaneous endoscopic gastrostomy or PEG tube), with the guidance of an x-ray (radiologically inserted gastrostomy or RIG tube), or surgically (surgical gastrostomy).
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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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