Head & Neck

Side Effects

Before treatment begins, talk with your medical team about possible side effects and what to do if they occur. The most important thing to remember is to communicate honestly about how you feel, both physically and emotionally. The sooner you share your concerns, the quicker they can be managed.

Your health care team relies on a group of services known as supportive care. Supportive care is also known as palliative care and is often confused with hospice care. They are not the same thing. Hospice is reserved for end-of-life care, and supportive care addresses the physical, emotional, practical, spiritual, financial and family-related challenges associated with cancer. Many people use it to manage physical side effects, but other resources are available: nutrition, fitness, mental health, spirituality, physical/occupational therapy, speech therapy and more. Your family members, caregivers and others close to you can also benefit from this support.

Potentially Severe Side Effects

Though serious side effects are rare, they can occur with certain treatments. Ask your doctor whether the therapies in your treatment plan put you at risk and, if so, how to identify the symptoms and when to seek emergency care. Report symptoms immediately.

  • Infection can occur as a result of a low white blood cell count (neutropenia) and other factors.
  • Immune-related adverse events (irAEs) may occur if the immune system becomes overstimulated by treatment and causes inflammation in one or more organs or systems in the body. Some irAEs can develop rapidly, becoming severe and even life-threatening without immediate medical attention.
  • Cytokine release syndrome can occur if immune cells affected by treatment rapidly release large amounts of cytokines into the bloodstream. Symptoms may include headache, fever, nausea, rash, low blood pressure, rapid heartbeat and difficulty breathing.
  • Infusion-related reactions most frequently occur with intravenous (IV) treatments, usually soon after exposure to the drug.
  • Tumor lysis syndrome (TLS) may occur after the treatment of a fast-growing cancer, and with some types of drug therapy. TLS can potentially damage the kidneys, heart, liver or other organs.

Common Side Effects

Every person responds to treatment differently. Head and neck cancer treatments, used alone or in combination, often cause side effects.

Late effects, which are side effects that develop weeks, months or years after treatment ends, may occur. Some disappear over time, while others are permanent.

Some Common Side Effects of Head and Neck Cancer Treatment

Side Effects Symptoms
Anemia Low energy, weakness, dizziness, light-headedness, shortness of breath, rapid heartbeat
Bone loss and pain Weakened bone caused by the cancer or treatment
Chemo brain Brain fog, confusion and/or memory problems
Constipation Difficulty passing stools or less frequent bowel movements compared to your usual bowel habits
Decreased appetite Eating less than usual, feeling full after minimal eating, not feeling hungry
Diarrhea Frequent loose or watery bowel movements that are commonly an inconvenience but can become serious if left untreated
Difficulty swallowing Also called dysphagia; may include painful swallowing.
Fatigue Tiredness that is much stronger and harder to relieve than the fatigue a healthy person has
Fever Raised body temperature that could signal an infection
Hair loss (alopecia) Hair loss on the head, face and body
Headache Pain or discomfort in the head
Lymphedema Swelling where lymph nodes have been removed or damaged
Nausea and vomiting The feeling of needing to throw up and/or throwing up
Neuropathy Numbness, pain, burning sensations and tingling, usually in the hands or feet at first
Neutropenia Low white blood cell count that increases the risk of infection
Pain Pain and aches that occur in the muscles, bones, tendons, ligaments or nerves
Respiratory problems Shortness of breath (dyspnea) with or without cough, upper respiratory infections.
Skin reactions Rash, redness and irritation or dry, flaky or peeling skin that may itch
Thrombocytopenia Low number of platelets in the blood, which can lead to bruising and bleeding
Trismus Jaw stiffness, reduced ability to open mouth wide, pain opening and closing mouth
Weight changes Gaining or losing weight unintentionally

Surround Yourself With Support

You can expect to feel a range of emotions, from anger and anxiety to isolation and depression. This is normal, especially because your illness affects a part of your body that is always on display. It can affect every area of your life, including intimacy, career and socializing. It is essential to share your feelings with people who understand what you are going through.

Support groups for head and neck cancer survivors are available in person and online. Participants openly share what they have learned from challenges with treatments, in their relationships or careers and in other areas. Some groups offer one-on-one buddy programs or peer-to-peer support that pairs you with another person who shares your diagnosis.

Advocacy groups, national organizations and wish-fulfillment organizations are also available. Some organizations specifically help head and neck cancer survivors manage the unique financial challenges of treatment. Through donations, grants and volunteers, patients are able to move forward with treatment and recovery with much-needed help in a variety of areas, from access to liquid nutrition and transportation to medical appointments and dental prosthetics.