Frequently asked questions (FAQ) about head and neck cancer 

This section of the website contains frequently asked questions asked by head and neck cancer patients about some of the things you may experience during your treatment.

  • How can I deal with fear and anxiety?

    A cancer diagnosis affects everyone differently, so there are no set rules about how you’re likely to feel, or how you should deal with your emotions.

    When you receive your cancer diagnosis, you may be given a number of options about your treatment. This can mean having to make some complex decisions at an already stressful time. If you’re finding these decisions difficult or confusing, or suffering from fear and anxiety, talk to your clinical nurse specialist (CNS) or somebody from the Macmillan Support and Information Service (MSIS).

    It can help to talk about your feelings. At UCLH we have a team of clinical psychologists available who can help. You may be prescribed medicine to help with anxiety or an antidepressant drug. You can be referred to the psychology team at any point. If you don’t feel it is needed when you are first diagnosed, you can be referred later on - even after treatment. If you are interested in seeing the psychology team, speak to your CNS who can refer you.

    We also have a support group for patients who have undergone a laryngectomy (removal of the larynx) procedure. The group offers a chance to meet other people who may be in a similar situation and facing the same challenges as you. You may find this group helpful if you have had a laryngectomy. Speak to your CNS about how to access the group.

    Read more about dealing with fear and anxiety (Macmillan Cancer Care).

  • How might my body image be affected?

    Head and neck cancer and the way it is treated can cause changes to the way you look. These changes can be significant and may affect the picture you have in your mind of how you look (your body image). UCLH offers reconstructive surgery which aims to restore appearance and function following cancer treatment, but how you feel about your body may be affected.

    Thoughts and feelings about your body image can be difficult to deal with and you may go through many different emotions.

    UCLH offers patient support groups for some types of cancers that provide educational and supportive discussion. They offer a chance to talk to other people who may be in a similar situation and facing the same challenges as you. You may find these groups helpful. Speak to your CNS about how to access a patient support group.

    Read more about changes to appearance and body image (Macmillan Cancer Care).

  • Is depression common following a cancer diagnosis?

    A cancer diagnosis affects everyone differently, so there are no set rules about how you’re likely to feel, or how you should deal with your emotions.

    It is common to experience depression. Depression is more than simply feeling unhappy or fed up for a few days. We all go through spells of feeling down, but when you're depressed you may feel persistently sad, lack motivation or have a sense of hopelessness which may last for weeks or months, rather than just a few days.

    If you think you may be depressed, it’s important to speak to your doctor. Symptoms of depression include lasting feelings of sadness, losing interest in the things you used to enjoy, feeling constantly tired, having difficulty getting to sleep, loss of appetite and feeling that life is not worth living.

    Read more about coping with depression (Macmillan Cancer Care).

  • How can I deal with dry mouth during treatment?

    A dry mouth is a common side effect for patients undergoing radiotherapy. Radiotherapy affects the salivary glands and so you may not be able to make as much saliva as before. Your mouth and throat may become dry which will make eating and speaking more difficult. This dry mouth can last for many months following end of treatment.

    Our Head and Neck Dietitians can improve the symptoms of dry mouth by providing assistance and advice concerning eating and drinking, recommending prescribed supplements and tube feeding. You may also find the use of false saliva helpful and this can be prescribed by your doctor or GP.

    Read more about the Head and Neck Dietitians.

    Read more about dry mouth following cancer treatment (Macmillan Cancer Care).

  • How important is it to stop smoking?

    Smoking is one of the main causes of head and neck cancers. It is important to try and give up as continuing to smoke following treatment puts you at greater risk of developing a second cancer. Smoking also increases the risk of post-operative complications including wound healing. If you continue to smoke during radiotherapy, the effectiveness of the treatment is less and you experience worse side effects.

    If you need help in giving up smoking, speak to your GP or clinical nurse specialist (CNS) about support available.

  • Should I stop drinking alcohol?

    Drinking alcohol will greatly increase your risk of developing further head and neck cancer following your treatment. It is important to try and cut back on alcohol as much as you can.

    If you need help in drinking less alcohol, speak to your GP or clinical nurse specialist (CNS) about support available.

  • How can I deal with difficulties with swallowing?

    Treatments for head and neck cancer, like surgery and radiotherapy, can interfere with the functioning movements of your mouth, tongue or throat. Difficulties with swallowing can make it harder to eat and drink properly.

    Our Speech and Language Therapy Service Head and Neck Cancer and Head and Neck Dietitians will work closely with you to help you return to eating and drinking.

  • How can I get involved in my own care?

    We recognise that being diagnosed with cancer can be a difficult time for you and those close to you. Taking charge can allow you to take greater control of your life and look after yourself more effectively. We encourage you to be actively involved in all aspects of your care. Your CNS will work with you during and after treatment to help you self-manage during treatment and rehabilitation, empowering you with regards to life after cancer treatment.

    The Macmillan Support and Information Service run patient courses like the HOPE (Helping to Overcome Problems Effectively) course, relaxation workshops, as well as courses to help manage anxiety.

    After your treatment is complete, we will offer to help you transition into survivorship programmes and living with and beyond cancer.