What is Speech & Language Therapy?

Speech and language therapy is a study of communication disorders, that is any breakdown that occurs in the process of communication, i.e. voice, fluency, speech clarity, understanding and production of language. Some Speech-Language Therapists (SLT) are even specialized in treating swallowing disorders as speech and swallowing share similar anatomical structures (i.e. mouth and throat). SLT work closely with surgeons and oncologists to make sure patients get the help that needed.

For cancer patients

An SLT can assess and manage communication disorders as well as swallowing disorders resulting from cancer. Patients with head and neck cancer, brain cancer and even lung cancer are susceptible to speech and swallowing disorders. As such they may require speech and swallowing intervention as soon as the diagnosis is made or at some point during the treatment.

Cancer can affect the laryngeal nerves (nerves involved in voice production), it can cause vocal fold(s) paralysis. When that happens, your voice becomes breathy and you will not be able to speak in long sentences (as you run out of breath very easily). At the same time, vocal fold(s) paralysis can cause swallowing problems since your vocal folds will not be able to close airway completely during swallowing.

Given this, mealtimes will also be challenging, with constant coughing especially if the cancer affects the oral and pharyngeal cavities. Patients may experience difficulties in breaking down food. You may also, cough and choke with food and drinks. 

If the cancer affects your speech and language area in the brain, then you may experience difficulties in communicating with others: i.e. unable to understand spoken language; unable to speak; or your speech becomes unclear.

Some cancer treatments can also cause problems. Both the voice itself (frequency, pitch and intensity) and the ability to speak can be affected by cancer and its treatments. Surgery for head or neck cancer may cause permanent changes that make communication or speaking difficult. Radiation can cause problems ranging from short-term swelling of tissue (edema) and pain to long-term scarring and stiffening of tissue.

During a total laryngectomy, the larynx, including the vocal folds, is completely removed. A person who has had a total laryngectomy must learn new ways to speak using a different vibration source to replace the vibrations of the vocal folds.

Patients who have radiation therapy or a partial laryngectomy can still speak using the vocal folds. There may be some changes to the quality of the voice, including hoarseness, breathy voice and voice fatigue. Speech therapy can help these patients improve the quality of their speech.

Speech and Language Therapy Techniques

At SunMed, we offer personalized treatment as there are no two patients who will exhibit the same impairments and need. For an example, a patient whose speech and language skills are affected will need speech and language therapy but not swallowing therapy. A patient with difficulties in swallowing will need diet modification, swallowing strategies to ensure safe swallow and swallowing exercises to improve the patient's swallow functions. If a patient only has a voice problem, then we will offer voice therapy and techniques to improve the patient's voice quality.

The time required for speech and language therapy is highly dependent on the patients’ impairments, its severity, prognosis and how fast the patient responds to therapy.