Head & Neck Cancers: Survivorship & Support

Survivors of head and neck cancer often look and feel their best when quality of life is emphasized from the first stages of treatment. Recent advances in surgical techniques make it possible to preserve or restore appearance and function for many patients with tumors in sensitive areas of the head and neck. Advances in radiation therapy and chemotherapy allow other patients to avoid surgery altogether and reduce the side effects of these treatments.

Because patients with head and neck cancers may have only a brief stay in the hospital during their treatment, rehabilitation, follow-up care, and post-treatment support are especially important for survivors.

Rehabilitation

Speech and swallowing therapists are key members of the head and neck cancer rehabilitation team. Physical and occupational therapists help patients improve mobility after surgery or other medical treatments. Memorial Sloan Kettering's experienced therapists work closely with head and neck cancer patients, their families, and the medical team to enhance patients' quality of life throughout treatment and recovery, and after cancer.

Therapists in Memorial Sloan Kettering's Speech, Hearing, and Rehabilitation Center evaluate each patient's functional needs and design an individualized treatment plan during the patient's treatment program or hospital stay. They often prescribe therapeutic exercise regimens to help patients improve their articulation (speech and pronunciation), swallowing, posture, range of motion, and the strength of their neck and shoulder muscles following treatment. They may also provide treatments to improve the efficiency of breathing and coughing after surgery and assistive devices to help patients walk. Memorial Sloan Kettering's therapists play an important role in educating patients in proper body mechanics, energy conservation, and pain management techniques to reduce the side effects of surgery or hospitalization. They may also ask patients to take specific precautions after surgery to the head and neck.

Pictured: Jatin Shah
Video

Physicians discuss the role of rehabilitation therapy for patients after treatment for head and neck cancer.

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Following treatment, a patient may notice changes in his or her range of motion, strength, flexibility, balance, and endurance. Occupational therapists educate patients and their families about these changes and how to use adaptive equipment and compensatory techniques to increase patients' independence during their daily routines. They also teach patients techniques that will help them complete basic daily activities such as bathing, dressing, and moving around. Some patients may experience a decrease in vision after surgery; occupational therapists can evaluate and teach compensatory techniques for decreased vision.

Members of the head and neck cancer team also work closely with the Center's Integrative Medicine Service. For example, research done at Memorial Sloan Kettering demonstrated that acupuncture may be helpful in addressing neck and shoulder symptoms after neck surgery as well as dry mouth after radiation therapy.

Learn more about the role of rehabilitation services in the care of cancer patients.

Follow-Up Care

At Memorial Sloan Kettering, we are dedicated to helping survivors of head and neck cancer live their lives to the fullest after treatment. We offer comprehensive follow-up care for people who have been treated here as part of our institution-wide Survivorship Initiative.

Your follow-up care is provided by a nurse practitioner who specializes in the care of head and neck cancer survivors. In addition to monitoring for signs of cancer recurrence, she focuses on identifying, preventing, and controlling any long-term and late effects associated with cancer and its treatment.

A visit with the nurse practitioner includes the following:

  • Review of your recent medical history and a physical examination
  • Assessment to detect recurrence of cancer
  • Identification and management of the effects of cancer and its treatment
  • Screening referrals for other cancers
  • Health promotion recommendations related to nutrition, exercise, and smoking cessation
  • Treatment summary and follow-up care plan
  • Consultation with your Memorial Sloan Kettering physician as needed

In addition to working closely with your treatment team, the nurse practitioner provides a treatment summary and survivorship care plan to you, your primary care doctor, and other medical providers. Your physicians can then incorporate this information into your overall medical plan. After each visit, the nurse practitioner will continue to update your other medical providers.

Your Follow-Up Care Provider

Pictured: Janet T. McKiernan, NP Janet T. McKiernan, NP I am a nurse practitioner with special training in head and neck cancer survivorship issues. I graduated from Molloy College's nurse practitioner program and have worked at Memorial Sloan Kettering since 1990.

Smoking Cessation

Some head and neck cancer patients think that it doesn't really matter whether they quit smoking or not once they have been diagnosed with cancer. Studies show that 37 percent of patients with one of these cancers who continue to smoke will develop a second cancer, compared to only 6 percent of those who stop smoking. People who have been diagnosed with a head and neck cancer should make a concerted effort to quit smoking.

Memorial Sloan Kettering's Smoking Cessation Program can help smokers stop, whether they have cancer or just want to improve their health and reduce the risk of cancer. Other groups offer programs and resources that help people take steps toward a healthy lifestyle. The Cancer Information Service (1-800-4-CANCER), the American Lung Association, and the American Cancer Society offer online resources, booklets, and referrals to local programs, as do Nicotine Anonymous and QuitNet.

Head and neck cancer patients can also lower their risk of developing a second cancer — and other types of cancer — by avoiding alcohol, eating a good diet, and protecting themselves from the sun.

Living Beyond Cancer

People facing the challenges of cancer survivorship can access a variety of support services through the Living Beyond Cancer section of our website. This section includes information about professionally led support groups and counseling; survivorship clinics to manage late effects of cancer and its treatment; recommendations about screening and healthy living; and specialized services to address sexual and reproductive health. We also offer a range of resources to help survivors, families, and friends better understand the complex emotional and social issues following treatment.

Additional services are offered through our Resources for Life After Cancer program, which provides a full range of educational support services, including individual and family counseling, periodic lectures or workshops to provide medical updates, and practical guidance on employment and insurance issues. Our monthly group meeting is geared toward specific topics of interest to head and neck cancer survivors such as proper nutrition, emotional and spiritual wellness, and general fitness. The Resources for Life After Cancer program welcomes all former patients and their families, including those treated outside of Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. For reservations and information, please call the Resources for Life After Cancer program at 646-888-4740.

Help for Older Patients

A diagnosis of cancer is difficult at any age, but older patients face unique challenges. Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center is committed to providing cancer patients aged 65 and older with the treatment, facilities, and support they need.

Memorial Sloan Kettering offers the services of a multidisciplinary geriatric team, which includes physicians, clinical nurse specialists, social workers, nutritionists, and psychiatrists, as well as members of the Palliative Medicine Service and the Integrative Medicine Service. The programs and care the team provides focus on the needs of elderly cancer patients.

For more information about our services for older patients as well as for their family and friends, visit Help for Older Patients.

Access Information Through our Patient Portal

Memorial Sloan Kettering offers a secure website — called MYMSKCC — for patients to access personalized information about their care. If you enroll to use MYMSKCC, you can view, confirm, and keep track of appointments; access over 300 lab results; make changes to contact and insurance information; communicate with your healthcare team and other staff using secure electronic messages; and pay bills and view balances. Learn more about MYMSKCC.

To enroll in MYMSKCC, please ask a session assistant in clinic or contact your physician's office.