Head & Neck Cancer
A head and neck cancer diagnosis is life changing in many ways. It affects parts of your body that are always on display – your face, mouth and neck – and it’s understandable to feel self-conscious if your physical appearance changes as a result of treatment.
From losing your hair and living with a permanent stoma to having facial scars or being in the process of a lengthy reconstruction process, you may feel uneasy about how you look. Your fears may become so intense that you avoid going out for everyday tasks, such as grocery shopping or walking the dog. Speech difficulties can also be a source of insecurity. Although your physical health is the priority, these concerns can take a significant toll on many areas of your life. A healthy self-image can help you move forward with the rest of your life. So, how do you achieve that?
Ask your health care team for referrals to therapists, mental health professionals and other specialists who are experienced in working with people with head and neck cancer. They can also refer you to support groups that offer peer support from head and neck survivors who have been in your shoes. If you are in need of speech therapy and are not receiving it, contact your doctor or another health team member.
Some survivors say that waking up, getting dressed, fixing their hair and putting on makeup or shaving every morning gets their day off to the right start. Some of the best advice about your appearance may come from other head and neck cancer survivors in an online or local support group. These suggestions may also help.
If you have a stoma, wear clothes that are comfortable and offer some camouflage. Accessories can also help draw the focus away from your stoma (see Living With a Stoma).
Facial scarring can affect your self-esteem. Some scars will likely fade over time. In the meantime, you can use makeup to help conceal them and even out your skin tone. Some makeup brands are designed specifically for this purpose and may require a prescription. Ask your doctor to recommend camouflage makeup that will work best for you.
Treatment may require that some or all of your teeth are removed. As a result, you may feel self-conscious about your appearance. You may even avoid smiling, which can also take a toll on your emotional well-being. Talk with a dentist with experience treating patients who have cancer about your options. These may include being fitted for dentures or having more complex jaw and facial surgery. Dentures and reconstructive surgery are usually costly and may not be covered by insurance, so it is important to check with your insurance provider first. Certain organizations are dedicated to contributing financially to help head and neck cancer survivors live fully during and after treatment.
Taking care of your emotional health is important. Your feelings may range from being angry and anxious to fearful, guilty, isolated or depressed. These are common, especially if you aren’t able to express yourself to someone who gets it. Family and friends are wonderful, but they can only understand so much. Ask your nurse navigator to recommend a support group for head and neck cancer survivors online or in your area. The people there will understand what you’re going through because they have been through something similar.
Don’t hesitate to ask for a referral to a patient counselor or mental health professional. Contact your doctor about continued feelings of hopelessness or despair. Get immediate medical attention for thoughts of suicide.
Research studies have shown that various holistic approaches, such as journaling, meditation and guided imagery (visualization) may reduce feelings of depression and increase the overall sense of well-being.
People often socialize around food. Although you may have challenges with how you eat, having a nice evening out with friends in a social setting is possible. Browse restaurants online and choose one that offers selections you can eat comfortably. Look at the menu online, and preselect your entrée before you go. Call ahead to request a table that allows for more privacy. A booth can be ideal. Also ask that your water glass be kept full to make swallowing easier. It will likely take much longer to finish than others at the table, so when ordering, request half the meal to be served and the remainder placed in a carryout container. Promote conversations that aren’t related to cancer to make dining together a fun social outing for everyone.
Dating and intimacy may be difficult. The physical changes in your body may make you feel less desirable or insecure about being intimate with a partner. You may be embarrassed to explain these issues to a partner, but try to share as openly as possible about these concerns. He or she is probably as nervous and anxious as you are. Work through this together. Small steps at a time. Talking with a therapist may help.
In the Workplace
How you handle the news of your cancer diagnosis is very personal. You may feel it is a private matter and choose to keep it to yourself, or you may share it with your employer and coworkers. The relationships you have at work may be a valuable source of support. Additionally, appearance changes or physical limitations may require some explanation.
Keep in mind that some treatment side effects may require adjustments, such as a flexible schedule, reduced hours, a redesigned work station, the ability to work from home and/or altered responsibilities, so you may want to inform your manager and human resources department. Your employer is required under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) to provide reasonable accommodations. Meet with your human resources representative for details about the ADA and how it applies in your workplace.