Grateful for the ability to swallow food on Thanksgiving

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KANSAS CITY, Kan. -- You probably won't think twice about your ability to swallow your Thanksgiving meal, but it is one thing an Olathe woman will be most grateful for.

Barbara Burks wondered if she'd ever swallow pudding again, let alone anything tougher. Eighteen months ago, she had surgery for throat cancer and was left unable to swallow anything but a little water.

"I mean from coffee to steak, I missed it all," said Burks.

Her nutrition came through a feeding tube. Burks tried the usual swallowing exercises which patients may practice at home for weeks before getting to try food.

"It's not very fun to go home and do work and not actually get to eat food," said Jessica Barton, a speech-language pathologist at the University of Kansas Hospital.

Barton and her colleagues are excited about a newer therapy. The McNeill Dysphagia Therapy Program has patients start eating the foods deemed safest for them. Then they work up to more difficult ones.

It's done in front of the therapist in sessions five days a week for three weeks. Because there is risk of aspiration, eating must be monitored at first.

"We also have people continue to do the traditional oral motor exercises in addition to this, but people like to eat. I mean, that's the biggest motivating factor," said Barton.

Burks says it sure motivated her. She went from pudding to fruit cocktail to macaroni and cheese and some meat. She's eating them all on her own now.

And what does she plan to do on Thanksgiving?

"I plan to eat like a champ!" exclaimed Burks.

She'll eat like a very grateful “champ” who's conquering cancer and swallowing.

"I'm extremely grateful for not only being alive but being able to have a quality of life," she said.

Burks will have her feeding tube removed next week.