Head and Neck Cancer: Care Instructions

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Your Care Instructions

Head and neck cancer is the rapid growth of abnormal cells that usually starts in the mouth, nose, or throat area. These cancers can spread to nearby lymph nodes or organs, or to distant areas of the body. Most head and neck cancers are linked to tobacco or alcohol use.

Treatment for head and neck cancer depends on what type of cancer you have and how far it has spread. You may need surgery to remove the cancer. You also may take medicines (chemotherapy) or get radiation treatments to kill the cancer cells, or you may need all three treatments.

Treatment with chemotherapy or radiation can make you feel very tired and sick to your stomach and may cause vomiting and diarrhea. Radiation may also make the treated area red and sore, although these symptoms go away after treatment ends. These treatments also can weaken your immune system, raising your risk of infection.

Finding out that you have cancer is scary. You may feel many emotions and may need some help coping. Seek out family, friends, and counsellors for support. You also can do things at home to make yourself feel better while you go through treatment. Call the Canadian Cancer Society (1-888-939-3333) or visit its website at www.cancer.ca for more information.

Follow-up care is a key part of your treatment and safety. Be sure to make and go to all appointments, and call your doctor or nurse call line if you are having problems. It's also a good idea to know your test results and keep a list of the medicines you take.

How can you care for yourself at home?

  • Take your medicines exactly as prescribed. Call your doctor or nurse call line if you have any problems with your medicine. You may get medicine for nausea and vomiting if you have these side effects.
  • Eat healthy food. If you do not feel like eating, try to eat food that has protein and extra calories to keep up your strength and prevent weight loss. Drink liquid meal replacements for extra calories and protein. Try to eat your main meal early. Some people do better with small, frequent meals rather than one or two large ones.
  • Your doctor may suggest a feeding tube if your mouth and throat are too sore to chew and swallow. This will help you get the right nutrition, a key part of your recovery.
  • Get some physical activity every day, but do not get too tired. Keep doing the hobbies you enjoy as your energy allows.
  • Take steps to control your stress and workload. Learn relaxation techniques.
    • Share your feelings. Stress and tension affect our emotions. By expressing your feelings to others, you may be able to understand and cope with them.
    • Consider joining a support group. Talking about a problem with your spouse, a good friend, or other people with similar problems is a good way to reduce tension and stress.
    • Express yourself through art. Try writing, dance, art, or crafts to relieve tension. Some groups may be available just for people who have cancer.
    • Be kind to your body and mind. Getting enough sleep, eating a healthy diet, and taking time to do things you enjoy can contribute to an overall feeling of balance in your life and can help reduce stress.
    • Get help if you need it. Discuss your concerns with your doctor, counsellor, or other health professional.
  • If you are vomiting or have diarrhea:
    • Drink plenty of fluids (enough so that your urine is light yellow or clear like water) to prevent dehydration. Choose water and other caffeine-free clear liquids. If you have kidney, heart, or liver disease and have to limit fluids, talk with your doctor before you increase the amount of fluids you drink.
    • When you are able to eat, try clear soups, mild foods, and liquids until all symptoms are gone for 12 to 48 hours. Other good choices include dry toast, crackers, cooked cereal, and gelatin dessert, such as Jell-O.
  • If you have not already done so, prepare an advance care plan. An advance care plan provides instructions to your doctor and family members about what kind of care you want if you become unable to speak or express yourself.

When should you call for help?

Call your doctor or nurse call line now or seek immediate medical care if:

  • You have any unusual bleeding, such as:
    • You cough up blood.
    • Blood spots under the skin.
    • A nosebleed that you cannot stop.
    • Bleeding gums when you brush your teeth.
    • Blood in your urine.
    • Vaginal bleeding when you are not having your period, or heavy period bleeding.
  • You have nausea or vomiting that is not controlled by medicine.
  • Your pain is not controlled by medicine.

Watch closely for changes in your health, and be sure to contact your doctor or nurse call line if:

  • You are not able to eat well and are losing weight.
  • You feel more tired than usual.
  • Your symptoms do not get better, or they get worse.
  • You feel very sad or anxious, or both.

Where can you learn more?

Go to https://www.healthwise.net/patientEd

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