Head and Neck Cancer and Palliative Care

Understanding Head and Neck Cancer

Head and neck cancer includes several different types of cancers. Head and neck cancers make up about 3 percent of the cancers in the United States. They are about twice as common among men as they are among women.

Most head and neck cancers grow in the upper layers of mucous membranes inside the head and neck. They can affect the mouth, tongue, nasal passages, salivary glands, voice box, pharynx and throat.

Most head and neck cancers are related to substance abuse from smoking, chewing tobacco and drinking alcohol. Other risk factors include HPV (human papillomavirus), head and neck radiation, eating certain preservatives or salted foods during childhood, Epstein-Barr virus infection, poor oral hygiene or missing teeth, and exposure to wood dust.

Understanding Palliative Care

Palliative (pronounced “pal-lee-uh-tiv”) care is specialized medical care for people with serious illness such as head and neck cancer. It focuses on providing you with relief from the symptoms, pain and stress of a serious illnessr. The goal is to improve quality of life for both you and your family.

Palliative care is provided by a team of doctors, nurses and other specialists who work together with your other doctors to give you an extra layer of support. Palliative care is appropriate at any age and at any stage of your illness.  It is based on need, not prognosis, and you can have it together with curative treatment.

Treating Head and Neck Cancer Symptoms—How Palliative Care Can Help

Your specific symptoms depend on the type and location of your cancer. General symptoms may include a change in your voice, trouble swallowing, a sore that does not get better or a lump that does not go away.

Each type of treatment for head and neck cancer may involve a combination of radiation, surgery and chemotherapy. The specific cancer treatment depends on the type of cancer you have, its location and whether it has spread (the stage of cancer).

Your palliative care specialists will spend time with you to make sure that you and your family can fully match your treatment options to your personal needs and goals.

Your treatments can have side effects too. These include pain, nausea, fatigue (feeling weak or tired) and vomiting. A common side effect is damage to the salivary glands, which causes dry mouth. Palliative care doctors can give you relief with medicines that stimulate the salivary glands.

You may also have scars caused by your surgery. In addition to giving you medicine for pain, your palliative care specialists will help you and your loved ones deal with any emotional trauma caused by your surgery.

If your cancer is in the throat or voice box, there may be voice loss. You may have trouble breathing, eating, chewing and drinking. You may need a G-tube (which feeds nutrition into the stomach) or a tracheotomy (which creates a breathing hole in the neck).

The Benefits of Palliative Care

Palliative care teams are experts in treating the symptoms of head and neck cancer. They allow you to manage the aggressive treatments that help you to fight your disease.

The team works together with your other doctors as well as physical therapists, speech therapists, dieticians and social workers. The team also treats your anxiety, depression and other emotional side effects that may result from your treatments.

You can bring the palliative care team in at any time after diagnosis—but the earlier the better. Palliative care specialists help you and your family to live with the challenges of head and neck cancer—from the side effects of medical treatment to family caregiver stress.

The team will be your sounding board and your first line of defense against any symptoms of pain, discomfort, depression or anxiety. They will help you and your loved ones to make both large and small decisions, and they will enhance communication between you, your family and your other doctors, and help you to clarify your goals for care.

The palliative care team will always focus on your quality of life.

How to Get Palliative Care

If you or a loved one needs palliative care, ask your doctor for a referral.

Finding a hospital in your area with a palliative care team is easy. Just go to the Palliative Care Provider Directory for a state-by-state list. To find out if palliative care is right for you, take our quiz.