Survivorship: Life After Head & Neck Cancer

Author: OncoLink Team
Last Reviewed: September 5, 2019

There are many types of surgery used to treat head and neck cancers. These can result in trouble chewing, swallowing, speaking, and breathing. Other issues can include:

These effects may be temporary, last for months after treatment, or be permanent. Physical, occupational and lymphedema therapists, speech and swallowing experts, dietitians, plastic surgeons, prosthetic manufacturers, and pain management and orthodontic specialists can all be helpful in managing these concerns.

Be aware of signs of recurrence of the cancer, which may include weight loss, coughing or spitting-up blood, difficulty swallowing, difficulty opening the mouth fully, sores in the mouth that do not heal, a change in your voice or ear ache (particularly when swallowing). Contact your healthcare provider if any concerning symptoms occur.

It is important that you can get enough calories to prevent weight loss. If you have difficulty eating and/or maintaining your weight, you should consult with an oncology dietitian for help. Some survivors may need a feeding tube to provide nutrition if eating and/or swallowing are extremely difficult. If you are a smoker, ask your provider to help you quit. Smoking can greatly increase the risk of a second cancer or recurrence. Limit the amount of alcohol you drink, if any.

Good dental care and regular follow-up with a dentist is especially important after surgery and/or radiation. You are at a greater risk of developing tooth decay (cavities) because of the dry mouth that often results from surgery and/or radiation.

Quality of life can be a big concern for survivors of head and neck cancers. Depression and anxiety are common issues faced by survivors. You should feel free to discuss your concerns with your health care provider. Joining a support group can be a great way to see how others live life to the fullest after cancer. SPOHNC.org is a support organization specifically for people with head and neck cancers.

Key takeaways:

  • Report any signs concerning for recurrence, including weight loss, coughing up blood, difficulty swallowing, difficulty opening the mouth, persistent sores in the mouth, change in voice or earache (especially when swallowing).
  • Speak with a dietician for any nutrition concerns.
  • There are a number of specialists who can help with the late effects of head and neck cancer treatment. Ask your oncology team to refer you to specialists based on your specific concerns.
  • See your dentist twice a year and practice good oral care. Your dentist may recommend frequent fluoride treatments.
  • Do not smoke. If you do smoke, ask you provider for help with quitting. Limit how much alcohol you drink, if any.
  • Report any concerns of depression or anxiety to your healthcare provider. Consider counseling or support groups to help you cope.

References

Cohen, E. E. W., LaMonte, S. J., Erb, N. L., Beckman, K. L., Sadeghi, N., Hutcheson, K. A., … Pratt‐Chapman, M. L. (2016). American Cancer Society Head and Neck Cancer Survivorship Care Guideline. CA: A Cancer Journal for Clinicians66(3), 203–239. https://doi.org/10.3322/caac.21343

Mujica–Mota, M., Waissbluth, S., & Daniel, S. J. (2013). Characteristics of radiation-induced sensorineural hearing loss in head and neck cancer: A systematic review. Head & Neck35(11), 1662–1668. https://doi.org/10.1002/hed.23201

Roman, B. R., Goldenberg, D., Givi, B., & The Education Committee of American Head and Neck Society (AHNS). (2016). AHNS Series—Do you know your guidelines? Guideline recommended follow-up and surveillance of head and neck cancer survivors. Head & Neck38(2), 168–174. https://doi.org/10.1002/hed.24100

Sroussi, H. Y., Epstein, J. B., Bensadoun, R.-J., Saunders, D. P., Lalla, R. V., Migliorati, C. A., … Zumsteg, Z. S. (2017). Common oral complications of head and neck cancer radiation therapy: Mucositis, infections, saliva change, fibrosis, sensory dysfunctions, dental caries, periodontal disease, and osteoradionecrosis. Cancer Medicine6(12), 2918–2931. https://doi.org/10.1002/cam4.1221

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