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Head and Neck Cancer: Swallowing Basics

People who receive treatment for head and neck cancer can have difficulty swallowing at different points in time of their cancer treatment. The causes of swallowing difficulty can be complex and related to multiple factors: tumor growth resulting in injury to normal tissue, surgery-induced damage to the oral and/or pharyngeal (throat) muscles, and/or excessive scarring from radiation.

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Applying for Disability Benefits with Head and Neck Cancer

Byline: This article was written by the Outreach Team at Disability Benefits Help. They provide information about disability benefits and the application process. To learn more, please visit their website at or by contacting them at

Approximately 4% of all cancers diagnosed in the United States are located in the head and neck area, and researchers estimate that over 65,000 American men and women were diagnosed with some form of this cancer in 2017.

Head and neck cancer include all occurrences that appear in the area, with the exception of brain cancer. Common forms include cancer of the:

● Lips
● Larynx
● Mouth
● Nasal cavity or sinuses
● Throat
● Tongue

Treatment plans will vary according to the location of the tumor, stage that the cancer has reached, and your overall health. General approaches include chemotherapy, radiation therapy, surgery, and targeted therapy. Individually or as part of an overall treatment combination, these cancer-fighting treatments can leave you too exhausted to maintain full-time employment. If this happens to you, you may qualify for Social Security Administration (SSA) disability benefits, which can help meet the costs of your cancer treatments while compensating for lost income.

Medical Eligibility with Head and Neck Cancer

When you apply for disability benefits, the SSA refers to the Blue Book, which lists recognized disabilities and the criteria for meeting each one. Section 13.02 Soft tissue cancer of the head and neck covers all local cancers except those of the salivary glands and thyroid, which have their own listings.
Certain types of head and neck cancer will result in an automatic approval of your disability claim. They include:

● Esophageal Cancer
● Salivary Cancers
● Sinonasal Cancer
● Thyroid Cancer

You will also qualify with head and neck cancer that has spread, cannot be operated on or removed, or is a small cell carcinoma. If you have a head or neck cancer whose symptoms and treatment are expected to leave you completely disabled for at least a year, you will also be approved for benefits. Reviewing the Blue Book online will give you a better idea of how you may qualify for your particular condition.

The Compassionate Allowances Program

The SSA designed the Compassionate Allowances Program to deliver benefits more quickly to applicants with serious and clearly disabling conditions. Certain head and neck cancers qualify for a Compassionate Allowance, and if you have any type that is a small cell carcinoma, has spread, and/or can’t be removed or operated on, your claim will also be reviewed and approved more rapidly. If you qualify for a Compassionate Allowance, your claim can be approved in as little as 10 days, instead of the months that a regular application entails.

Receiving Benefits Without Meeting a Listing

Certain head and neck cancers are treatable if caught in the early stages. For example, with early detection, throat cancer treatment has an estimated 95% success rate. In this situation you will not qualify for disability benefits unless at least 12 months of treatment are required and any associated side effects and complications will leave you too disabled to work full-time. If this happens to be the case with you, you may qualify for a medical vocational allowance.

This allowance is intended to make benefits available to applicants who did not meet a listing but are still unable to maintain gainful employment. Your eligibility will be determined by factors such as your functional capacity, employment history, and even age, as older applicants can find it more difficult to be retrained for a career they can pursue during their cancer treatments.

To evaluate your application, the SSA will review your residual functional capacity (RFC) form, which details the ways that having cancer has impacted your ability to work at a job you are trained and qualified for. This form must be filled out by your oncologist and submitted along with your original application.

Applying for Disability Benefits

Applying consists of completing an application form and submitting it to the SSA, along with medical documentation that supports both your diagnosis and prognosis. Examples include:

● Physical examination results
● Endoscopy test results
● Lab tests such as blood and urine analysis
● Imaging results for tests like X-rays, MRIs, CT scans and/or PET scans
● Pathology reports
● Anti-cancer treatment results

You may apply online or call 1-800-772-1213 to schedule an appointment at your closest SSA office. Once your benefits start arriving, your financial worries will ease and you can focus on improving your quality of life during treatment and beyond.

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A Walk Through the Fire: A Resource for HNC Patients

The Head and Neck Cancer Living Foundation out of Kansas City put together a 15-minute documentary describing the journeys of six head and neck cancer survivors from diagnosis through the aftermath of the treatments.

The HNC Living Foundation funded this video to help compassionate people understand the devastation and intensity of the process and to draw donations to help those who have no insurance, are under-insured or who’s insurance simply runs out. The costs of living after the treatment can break a person financially and emotionally.

Watch this video:

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Your Cancer Game Plan

Pro Football Hall of Famer Jim Kelly is sharing his personal experience as part of “Your Cancer Game Plan.” This new awareness campaign focuses on tackling the emotional, nutritional and communication needs of those facing cancer. To help address these challenges the campaign aims to provide support and resources, including Kelly’s video on how to remain positive along with healthy recipes for those with head and neck cancer.  Jim’s hope in sharing his experience is to inspire others to act and know their game plan.

Your Cancer Game Plan is a collaboration between U.S. and International industry and patient advocacy groups. Click here for further information.

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Xerostomia = Dry Mouth

Byline: Jennifer Kurtz is a Speech Language Pathologist and stage IV oral cancer survivor practicing at Overlake Medical Center near Seattle, Washington. Her experience has given her an unexpected, yet unique, perspective on the clinician’s role in the management of the Head & Neck Cancer population and has motivated her to advocate for aggressive, collaborative, multi-disciplinary care of all patients across a broad continuum.

Xerostomia describes the subjective sensation of oral dryness and is commonly called “dry mouth.” The typical causes of dry mouth include medications, radiotherapy to the head and neck for cancer treatment, and systemic diseases.


Xerostomia can have a profound, negative impact on quality of life. The lack of salivary production impacts the ability to eat, sleep, speak, and swallow (Lew & Smith, 2007). Adequate salivary flow allows us to speak clearly without our lips sticking to our teeth and to mix saliva with food when we chew to enable easy transfer through the oral cavity as we swallow. Inadequate salivary function can create a number of complications such as: continue reading →

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A Newfound Meaning to Life

Byline: Steve Clark from Camp Verde, AZ

In the years since I was first diagnosed with head and neck cancer I have come to one realization. There is no such thing as a “typical” case. So many delicate and complex systems pass through that part of the anatomy that every survivor tells a different story. This is mine. Glean from it what you will. I hope that it may be of help to someone. continue reading →