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  • Looking after yourself after treatment for head and neck cancers

    Contents

    Cancer can cause physical and emotional strain, so it’s important to look after your wellbeing. Cancer Council has free booklets and programs to help you during and after treatment. Call 13 11 20 to find out more.

    Staying active

    Physical activity can reduce tiredness, improve circulation and lift mood. The right exercise for you depends on what you are used to, how you feel, and your doctor’s advice.

    For more information about exercise call Cancer Council 13 11 20 or you can download the booklet Exercise for people living with cancer.

    Complementary therapies

    Complementary therapies are designed to be used alongside conventional medical treatments. Therapies such as massage, relaxation and acupuncture can increase your sense of control, decrease stress and anxiety, and improve your mood. Let your doctor know about any therapies you are using or thinking about trying, as some may not be safe or evidence-based.

    Alternative therapies are therapies used instead of conventional medical treatments. These are unlikely to be scientifically tested and may prevent successful treatment of the cancer. Cancer Council does not recommend the use of alternative therapies as a cancer treatment.

    For more information about complementary therapies call Cancer Council 13 11 20 or you can download the booklet Understanding Complementary Therapies.

    Work and money

    Cancer can change your financial situation, especially if you have extra medical expenses or need to stop working. Getting professional financial advice and talking to your employer can give you peace of mind. You can also check with a social worker or Cancer Council whether any financial assistance is available to you.

    For more information about work and money call
    Cancer Council 13 11 20 or you can download our booklets Cancer and Your Finances and Cancer, Work & You.

    Relationships

    Having cancer can affect your relationships with family, friends and colleagues in different ways. Cancer is stressful, tiring and upsetting, and this may strain relationships. It may also result in positive changes to your values, priorities or outlook on life. Give yourself time to adjust to what’s happening, and do the same for those around you. It may help to discuss your feelings with each other.

    For more information call Cancer Council 13 11 20 or you can download our booklet Emotions and Cancer.

    Sexuality

    Cancer can affect your sexuality in physical and emotional ways. The impact of these changes depends on many factors, such as treatment and side effects, your self-confidence, and if you have a partner. Although sexual intercourse may not always be possible, closeness and sharing can still be part of your relationship.

    For more information on sexuality call Cancer Council 13 11 20 or you can download our booklet Sexuality, Intimacy and Cancer.

    Contraception and fertility

    If you can have sex, you may need to use certain types of contraception to protect your partner or avoid pregnancy for a time. Your doctor will explain what precautions to take. They will also tell you if treatment will affect your fertility permanently or temporarily. If having children is important to you, discuss the options with your doctor before starting treatment.

    For more information on fertility call Cancer Council 13 11 20 or download our booklet Fertility and Cancer.

    Life after treatment

    For most people, the cancer experience doesn’t end on the last day of treatment. Life after cancer treatment can present its own challenges. You may have mixed feelings when treatment ends, and worry that every ache and pain means the cancer is coming back.

    Some people say that they feel pressure to return to “normal life”. It is important to allow yourself time to adjust to the physical and emotional changes, and establish a new daily routine at your own pace. Your family and friends may also need time to adjust.

    Cancer Council 13 11 20 can help you connect with other people who have had cancer, and provide you with information about the emotional and practical aspects of living well after cancer. 

    For more information you can download our booklet Living Well After Cancer.

    Dealing with feelings of sadness

    If you have continued feelings of sadness, have trouble getting up in the morning or have lost motivation to do things that previously gave you pleasure, you may be experiencing depression. This is quite common among people who have had cancer.

    Talk to your GP, as counselling or medication – even for a short time – may help. Some people can get a Medicare rebate for sessions with a psychologist. Ask your doctor if you are eligible. 

    The organisation beyondblue has information about coping with depression and anxiety. Go to beyondblue or call 1300 224 636 to order a fact sheet. For 24-hour crisis support, call Lifeline 13 11 14 or visit lifeline.org.au.

    Follow up appointments

    After treatment ends, you will have regular appointments with your specialist to monitor your health, manage any long-term side effects and check that the cancer hasn’t come back or spread. You may have blood tests and imaging scans, as well as physical and visual examinations of your head and neck. You will also be able to discuss how you’re feeling and any other concerns. You will receive continued support from a speech pathologist, dietitian and physiotherapist if you need it. You may also be asked to see your dentist regularly.

    When a follow-up appointment or test is approaching, many people find that they think more about the cancer and may feel anxious. Talk to your treatment team or call Cancer Council 13 11 20 if you are finding it hard to manage this anxiety. Check-ups will become less frequent if you have no further problems. Between follow-up appointments, let your doctor know immediately of any symptoms or health problems.

    What if the cancer returns?

    For some people, head and neck cancer does come back after treatment, which is known as a recurrence. This is why it’s important to have regular check-ups.

    If the cancer is only in the head and neck, you may have surgery to remove the cancer, or you may be able to have radiation therapy, depending on your previous treatment. If you are offered radiation therapy, it may be given with chemotherapy, or you may just be given chemotherapy by itself to try to control the cancer for as long as possible. Your doctor will discuss the types of treatment available to you.

    This website page was last reviewed and updated January 2020.

    Information reviewed by: A/Prof David Wiesenfeld, Oral and Maxillofacial Surgeon, Director, Head and Neck Tumour Stream, The Victorian Comprehensive Cancer Centre at Melbourne Health, VIC; Alan Bradbury, Consumer; Dr Ben Britton, Senior Clinical and Health Psychologist, John Hunter Hospital, NSW; Dr Madhavi Chilkuri, Radiation Oncologist, Townsville Cancer Centre, The Townsville Hospital, QLD; Jedda Clune, Senior Dietitian (Head and Neck Cancer), Sir Charles Gairdner Hospital, WA; Dr Fiona Day, Staff Specialist, Medical Oncology, Calvary Mater Newcastle, and Conjoint Senior Lecturer, The University of Newcastle, NSW; Dr Ben Dixon, ENT, Head and Neck Surgeon, Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre and St Vincent’s Hospital Melbourne, VIC; Emma Hair, Senior Social Worker, St George Hospital, NSW; Rosemerry Hodgkin, 13 11 20 Consultant, Cancer Council WA; Kara Hutchinson, Head and Neck Cancer Nurse Coordinator, St Vincent’s Hospital Melbourne, VIC; A/Prof Julia Maclean, Speech Pathologist, St George Hospital, NSW; Prof Jane Ussher, Chair, Women’s Health Psychology, Translational Health Research Institute (THRI), School of Medicine, Western Sydney University, NSW; Andrea Wong, Physiotherapist, St Vincent’s Hospital Melbourne, VIC.

     

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