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Head and Neck Cancer: Care Instructions

Overview

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 or infection with human papillomavirus (HPV).

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. Other treatments include radiation, chemotherapy, immunotherapy, or targeted therapy. Sometimes several types of treatments are needed.

Cancer treatments can make you feel very tired and sick to your stomach and may cause vomiting and diarrhea. Treatments can also make it hard to chew, swallow, or even talk. Your care team can help. Your doctor may also have you work with a dietitian or a speech and swallowing therapist.

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 advice line (811 in most provinces and territories) 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.
  • Follow your doctor's instructions to relieve pain. Pain from cancer and surgery can almost always be controlled. Use pain medicine when you first notice pain, before it becomes severe.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Get enough sleep, and take time to do things you enjoy. This can help reduce stress.
  • Think about joining a support group. Or discuss your concerns with your doctor or a counsellor.
  • If you are vomiting or have diarrhea:
    • Drink plenty of fluids to prevent dehydration. Choose water and other 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 911 anytime you think you may need emergency care. For example, call if:

  • You passed out (lost consciousness).

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

  • You have a fever.
  • You have abnormal bleeding.
  • You have new or worse pain.
  • You think you have an infection.
  • You have new symptoms, such as a cough, belly pain, vomiting, diarrhea, or a rash.

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

  • You are much more tired than usual.
  • You have swollen glands in your armpits, groin, or neck.
  • You do not get better as expected.

Where can you learn more?

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

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Care instructions adapted under license by your healthcare professional. If you have questions about a medical condition or this instruction, always ask your healthcare professional. Healthwise, Incorporated disclaims any warranty or liability for your use of this information.