Head and Neck Cancer

For the Caregiver

Your loved one will rely on you to help in many ways. This role is an incredibly meaningful responsibility that can make a tremendous difference in the life of the person with cancer. Following are some of the most important things you can do to help your loved one manage a head and neck cancer diagnosis.

Educate yourself. Using reputable resources such as this guide and those recommended by the health care team, learn about your loved one’s head and neck cancer diagnosis, treatment options and the common challenges ahead.

Manage medications and appointments. Cancer medications are most effective when taken exactly as prescribed. Use a calendar, pill box or reminder tool. Ensure your loved one attends all appointments for treatments and follow ups.

Get permission to receive medical information. Be sure you are authorized to communicate with your loved one’s health care team, renew prescriptions and more.

Choose a communication strategy. Your loved one may have challenges communicating, especially after surgery. Before treatment begins, determine how you will communicate with each other, such as writing notes or texting.

Update family and friends. Create an email group so you can send one email to everyone at the same time. This will dramatically reduce phone calls and individual emails as well as ensure that everyone is getting the same information.

Stay alert for side effects. You may notice changes more easily than a doctor or nurse. Before treatment begins, find out which symptoms and side effects require a call to the doctor or emergency medical attention. It helps to track when side effects occur, how long they last and whether anything makes them better. Share this information with the health care team at regularly scheduled appointments or sooner if your loved one is not getting the necessary relief.

Explore rehabilitation options. These may range from surgery and dental implants to physical therapy.

Ask about telehealth. Find out if the medical team offers virtual visits and whether they are covered by insurance. It is convenient for certain types of visits. However, your loved one's health care team may recommend in- person visits early on after treatment so that they can examine them for signs of recurrent cancer or side effects of treatment.

Encourage a healthy lifestyle. This applies to both of you. Follow a nutritious diet, exercise, limit risk of infection and get enough sleep. Ask the dietitian or another member of the team for suggestions.

Surround yourselves with support. Managing a head and neck cancer diagnosis and treatment is difficult for the patient and their loved ones. There are resources to help, such as HNC Living Foundation (hncliving.org) and KEY+YOU (keyplusyou.com).

Meet the health care team

A multidisciplinary team will be involved in your care.

Anaplastologists specialize in making custom prostheses, such as eyes, ears and noses, to rehabilitate an absent, disfigured or malformed part of the body.

Head and neck oncologic surgeons provide expertise in surgical procedures of the head and neck (an otolaryngologist with specialized surgical training).

Maxillofacial prosthodontists create custom dentures or other prostheses to help restore facial appearance and speech and the ability to eat normally.

Medical oncologists treat cancer with drug therapy or other medications.

Oncologic dentists and oral oncologists provide expert dental or oral care for people with head and neck cancer.

Oncology nurses provide inpatient or outpatient care in a cancer treatment facility.

Otolaryngologists treat diseases of the ear, nose and throat; also called an ENT.

Palliative care specialists work to provide physical and emotional relief for cancer symptoms and treatment-related side effects.

Patient navigators and nurse navigators serve as guides through diagnosis, treatment and follow-up; may also be patient advocates. They identify barriers to treatment, such as the need for transportation or help with copays and deductibles, and access resources to resolve such barriers. They are also commonly involved with coordination throughout the continuum of care.

Radiation oncologists treat cancer using radiation therapy.

Reconstructive and plastic surgeons use reconstructive procedures and techniques to help restore function and appearance after cancer treatment.

Rehabilitation specialists and physical therapists help restore movement and build physical strength after cancer treatment.

Registered dietitians and nutritionists help meet nutritional challenges that arise during and after treatment by providing nutrition advice based on your medical condition and individual needs.

Social workers assist you and your family if you need psychosocial (emotional) care or assistance, or require resources outside of medical care or advance directive planning.

Speech-language pathologists offer strategies and techniques for regaining or improving the ability to speak, swallow or use other oral motor skills following treatment.