Head and Neck Cancers are Especially Difficult


Bob Riter
If I’m in a support group, I always shut down conversations that begins with, “My cancer is worse than your cancer.” Those conversations are always pointless because every cancer is life-altering and potentially life-threatening.

But one type of cancer does present exceptional challenges during treatment and recovery. These cancers are head and neck cancers, and include cancers of the tongue, tonsils, throat and nasal cavity.

The treatment for these cancers affect one’s ability to swallow, speak, taste, and breathe.

Head and neck cancers are often treated with surgery and radiation therapy, both of which have improved through the years, but the side effects remain significant.

Serious sore throats accompany radiation therapy to the head or neck. Not the kind of sore throat that we all get with colds, but a sore throat so disabling that many people need to have feeding tubes inserted into their stomachs for a few months so they can take in adequate nutrition.

It’s common to have difficulty producing enough saliva after radiation to this area. In addition to making swallowing more difficult, a lack of saliva leads to dental problems. Many people with head and neck cancers require significant dental work before and/or after treatment. (As an added insult, this dental work is often not covered by medical insurance).

Taste buds may be affected by treatment. For many people, eating is no longer associated with pleasure, but with work. They can’t taste the food, but they need to eat in order to heal.

Some surgeries also affect one’s ability to speak. It may be difficult to speak above a whisper.

As challenging as these side effects are, most improve with time. People who whisper during the months following surgery may be speaking with a normal voice a couple of years later. Taste often returns and the sore throat goes away once treatment ends.

Although treatment is difficult, most people with early-stage head and neck cancers do well and have a good prognosis. I feel for them, though. Their journey back to health is a tough one.

Reprinted with permission of the Ithaca Journal.
Original publication date: September 20, 2014