This information includes resources to help people who have survived head and neck cancer manage the side effects of treatment, improve quality of life, and receive emotional support. It includes suggestions from other survivors, as well as from healthcare providers who treat people with head and neck cancer.
Always check with your healthcare provider before trying anything in this resource. You may also want to check with your insurance provider to see which services are covered.
When radiation treatment is used near your mouth or throat, your salivary glands (glands that produce saliva) are affected. This may cause your mouth to become dry. How long this lasts depends on the extent of your treatment. However, there are ways to decrease the discomfort. Below are suggestions that may help when you have dry mouth.
- Keep a glass of water at your bedside to drink during the night.
- Use a bedside humidifier.
- Drink plenty of liquids.
- Keep your mouth and lips moistened with Surgilube®, olive oil, cocoa butter or Aquaphor®.
- Moisten your food with lots of gravy, sauces, or juices.
- Avoid chocolate and starchy foods. They can be hard to swallow.
- Chew sugar-free gum or suck on sugar-free sour candies. They can help you make saliva.
You should try to avoid:
- Acidic foods and drinks (citrus fruits, lemon juice, vinegar, tomatoes)
- Hot and spicy foods
- Alcohol-based mouthwashes
For more information, please see the table “When Your Mouth Is Dry” in Eating Well During and After Your Treatment.
Tell your healthcare provider if you have dry mouth. He or she can recommend an oral saliva substitute for you to try. You can buy most of these without a prescription at your local pharmacy. Oral saliva substitutes are not a cure for loss of salivary gland function, but they can give you temporary relief of dry mouth. Here is a list of some oral saliva substitutes:
- Entertainer’s Secret®
- Moi-Stir® Oral Spray
- Mouthkote® Oral Moisturizer
- Colgate Optimoist®
- Salivart® Oral Moisturizer
- Biotene® Oral Balance®
If your mouth is sore or if swallowing is difficult, eating soft foods may help. These foods include:
- Scrambled eggs
- Mashed vegetables
Avoid foods that may irritate your mouth, such as:
- Spicy foods
- Salty foods
- Acidic foods and drinks (citrus fruits, lemon juice, vinegar, tomatoes)
For more information, please see the table “When Your Mouth Is Sore” in Eating Well During and After Your Treatment.
You may have some difficulty swallowing or loss of important nerve function after radiation therapy, surgery, or a combination of both treatments. Some survivors can swallow liquids such as Ensure® or soups. Others can swallow puréed or soft, wet foods.
If you can’t swallow at all, your doctor may recommend that you have a percutaneous endoscopic gastrostomy (PEG) tube. In this procedure, a tube is inserted through the abdominal (belly) wall into the stomach. Nutritional liquids are poured into the body through the tube. Your healthcare provider can tell you more about this process.
If you are having trouble swallowing, discuss it with your healthcare provider. It may also be helpful to meet with a speech or swallowing therapist.
Here are some suggestions to help with swallowing:
- Mix your food with sauces.
- Consider blending your favorite foods.
- Eat several small meals or snacks during the day instead of having 3 large meals.
You may have lost your speech or have trouble speaking if your treatment affected your larynx (voice box), tongue, or other parts of your mouth and throat. The extent of the loss depends on the degree of your treatment. Your healthcare team will work with you and discuss your options after treatment. It may be helpful to meet with a speech or swallowing therapist.
If your treatment has affected your salivary glands, you may have problems with your teeth. When saliva is not being produced, bacteria will stay in your mouth and on your teeth longer. This increases your risk of tooth decay.
It will be important for you to take good care of your teeth and gums after you have finished treatment. This is also referred to as “dental hygiene.” Oral saliva substitutes can also help. See your dentist regularly if you are not making saliva or have had radiation therapy to the head or neck.
If you will need teeth extracted (removed) at any point in your lifetime, you must have the extractions by a dentist who knows about the long term side effects of radiation. You can contact the dental department at Memorial Sloan Kettering (MSK) to make an appointment with a dentist.
If your appearance has changed, ask for a referral to speak with a counselor. Talking with a professional about this issue may help you deal with any distress.
Changes in appearance are often an issue for some people. Speak to your healthcare provider about plastic surgery or prosthetics to improve your appearance.
Pain is sometimes a part of healing and recovery. It can come and go and may last for months or even years after treatment. If you have pain, talk to your healthcare provider. MSK has pain specialists that can help manage your pain through the use of medication and behavioral approaches.
For more information, go to the MSK Pain Management website at: www.mskcc.org/cancer-care/palliative-care/pain-managementBack to top
Improving Your Quality of Life
The Integrative Medicine Service offers complementary therapies for patients and their families. These therapies are designed to help manage the side effects of treatment and improve your quality of life. These therapies include:
- Art and music therapy
- Mind-body therapies
- Guided imagery
- Nutritional and herbal counseling
The Integrative Medicine Service also offers various exercise classes. Exercise can be a great way to work off stress and increase your energy. It also may help with your physical and emotional adjustments as you recover from treatment. Classes are offered in:
- Chair Aerobics
- T’ai chi/Qi Gong
- T-Tap - The Wellness Workout
- Pilates Mat
To find out more about these services, or to make an appointment, call 646-888-0800. You can also visit the Integrative Medicine Service website at: www.mskcc.org/locations/bendheim-integrative-medicine
It may be hard for you to get the nutrition you need after you have finished treatment. The challenges you face will depend on the type of cancer you had and the kind of treatment you received.
We recommend that you meet with a dietitian. He or she can work with you to make sure that you are getting the nutrition you need. To schedule an appointment with an outpatient dietitian, call 212-639-7071.
For help with quitting smoking or other tobacco use, contact the Tobacco Treatment Program at the Counseling Center. This program is tailored to each person’s needs. To find out more about the program, call 212-610-0507 or go to: www.mskcc.org/cancer-care/counseling-support/cancer-patients
If you are concerned about your alcohol use, we can help you. Contact the Counseling Center at 646-888-0200.Back to top
Getting Emotional Support
Feelings of sadness, fear, anger, anxiety, or depression are common among head and neck cancer survivors. These feelings can start at the time of diagnosis. MSK has many professionals who can help you cope. They include social workers, psychiatrists, chaplains, and patient-to-patient volunteers.
You may notice feelings of anxiety now that your treatment is finished. Many people are also afraid that their cancer will return. These feelings can be overwhelming and difficult to explain to those not affected by cancer.
Emotional support is key to your recovery process. Talk to your healthcare provider if you think you are having these feelings. They can help you find the emotional support you need to get through this time.
Below, you will find some helpful resources for emotional support.
Many people find counseling helpful. We provide counseling for individuals , couples, families, and groups, as well as medications to help if you feel anxious or depressed.
You may find it comforting to speak with a cancer survivor or caregiver who has been through a similar treatment. Through the Patient-to-Patient Support Program, we are able to offer you a chance to speak with former patients and caregivers.
At MSK, care doesn’t end after active treatment. The RLAC Program is for patients and their families who have finished treatment. This program has many services, including seminars, workshops, support groups, counseling on life after treatment, and help with insurance and employment issues.
The American Cancer Society has an enormous amount of information and resources relating to all aspects of cancer.
ACOR is a collection of online cancer communities that allow users to connect with others affected by cancer to share information and support.
275 Seventh Avenue (Between 25th & 26th Streets)
New York, NY 10001
Provides counseling, support groups, educational workshops, publications, and financial assistance.
CIS provides information about many aspects of cancer, including diagnosis, treatment, prevention, and clinical trials.
The NCI website has detailed information on specific types of cancer.
SPOHNC is a patient-directed, self-help organization that is dedicated to meeting the needs of people with head and neck cancer. This organization produces a monthly newsletter and offers support through a survivor-to-survivor network. There are various local chapters in New York State.
The Oral Cancer Foundation is a national public service organization that is designed to reduce suffering and save lives through prevention, education, research, advocacy, and patient support activities.