ON THIS PAGE: You will learn more about coping with the physical, emotional, social, and financial effects of cancer and its treatment. Use the menu to see other pages.
Every cancer treatment can cause side effects or changes to your body and how you feel. For many reasons, people do not experience the same side effects even when they are given the same treatment for the same type of cancer. This can make it hard to predict how you will feel during treatment. People who are being treated for head and neck cancer may find it helpful to reach out to support groups that specialize in helping people being treated for this type of cancer. If you do not live near a support group or prefer receiving support in a different way, many patient advocacy groups offer one-on-one matching programs for patients as well as caregivers.
As you prepare to start cancer treatment, it is normal to fear treatment-related side effects. It may help to know that your health care team will work to prevent and relieve side effects. This part of cancer treatment is called palliative care or supportive care. It is an important part of your treatment plan, regardless of your age or the stage of disease.
Coping with physical side effects (updated 09/2022)
Common physical side effects from each treatment option for head and neck cancer are described in the Types of Treatment section. Learn more about side effects of cancer and its treatment, along with ways to prevent or control them. Changes to your physical health depend on several factors, including the cancer’s stage, the length and dose of treatment, and your general health.
Many people who have been treated for head and neck cancer have difficulty eating. Working with a speech-language pathologist and a registered dietitian can help. Listen to a podcast about managing eating challenges after treatment.
Side effects can also include problems with your sex life. Read an article on how people with head and neck cancer can cope with changes to sexual health.
In general, talk with your health care team regularly about how you are feeling and side effects you are experiencing. It is important to let them know about any new side effects or changes in existing side effects. If they know how you are feeling, they can find ways to relieve or manage your side effects to help you feel more comfortable and potentially keep any side effects from worsening. The American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO) recommends that massage, acupuncture, acupressure/reflexology, guided imagery with progressive muscle relaxation, or hatha yoga, which is a slower-paced form of yoga that focuses on the breath, may be offered to anyone experiencing pain after treatment for head and neck cancer.
You may find it helpful to keep track of your side effects so it is easier to talk about any changes with your health care team. Learn more about why tracking side effects is helpful.
Sometimes, side effects can last after treatment ends. Doctors call these long-term side effects. Side effects that occur months or years after treatment are called late effects. Treating long-term side effects and late effects is an important part of survivorship care. Learn more by reading the Follow-up Care section of this guide or talking with your doctor.
Coping with emotional and social effects
You can have emotional and social effects as well after a cancer diagnosis. This may include dealing with a variety of emotions, such as sadness, anxiety, or anger, or managing your stress level. Sometimes, people find it difficult to express how they feel to their loved ones. Some have found that talking to an oncology social worker, counselor, or member of the clergy can help them develop more effective ways of coping and talking about cancer.
You can also find coping strategies for emotional and social effects in a separate section of this website. This section includes many resources for finding support and information to meet your needs.
Coping with the costs of cancer care
Cancer treatment can be expensive. It is may be a source of stress and anxiety for people with cancer and their families. In addition to treatment costs, many people find they have extra, unplanned expenses related to their care. For some people, the high cost of medical care stops them from following or completing their cancer treatment plan. This can put their health at risk and may lead to higher costs in the future. Patients and their families are encouraged to talk about financial concerns with a member of their health care team. Learn more about managing financial considerations in a separate part of this website.
Coping with barriers to care
Some groups of people experience different rates of new cancer cases and experience different outcomes from their cancer diagnosis. These differences are called "cancer disparities." Disparities are caused in part by real-world barriers to quality medical care and social determinants of health, such as where a person lives and whether they have access to food and health care. Cancer disparities more often negatively affect racial and ethnic minorities, people with fewer financial resources, sexual and gender minorities (LGBTQ+), adolescent and young adult populations, older adults, and people who live in rural areas or other underserved communities.
If you are having difficulty getting the care you need, talk with a member of your health care team or explore other resources that help support medically underserved people.
Talking with your health care team about side effects
Before starting treatment, talk with your doctor about possible side effects. Ask:
Which side effects are most likely?
When are they likely to happen?
What can we do to prevent or relieve them?
When and who should we call about side effects?
Be sure to tell your health care team about any side effects that happen during treatment and afterward, too. Tell them even if you do not think the side effects are serious. This discussion should include physical, emotional, social, and financial effects of cancer.
Caring for a loved one with cancer
Family members and friends often play an important role in taking care of a person with head or neck cancer. This is called being a caregiver. Caregivers can provide physical, practical, and emotional support to the patient, even if they live far away. Being a caregiver can also be stressful and emotionally challenging. One of the most important tasks for caregivers is caring for themselves.
Caregivers may have a range of responsibilities on a daily or as-needed basis, including:
Providing support and encouragement
Talking with the health care team
Helping manage symptoms and side effects
Coordinating medical appointments
Providing a ride to and from appointments
Assisting with meals
Helping with household chores
Handling insurance and billing issues
A caregiving plan can help caregivers stay organized and help identify opportunities to delegate tasks to others. It may be helpful to ask the health care team how much care will be needed at home and with daily tasks during and after treatment. Use this 1-page fact sheet to help make a caregiving action plan. This free fact sheet is available as a PDF, so it is easy to print.
Learn more about caregiving or read the ASCO Answers Guide to Caring for a Loved One With Cancer in English or Spanish.
Looking for More on How to Track Side Effects?
Cancer.Net offers several resources to help you keep track of your symptoms and side effects. Please note that these links will take you to other sections of Cancer.Net:
Cancer.Net Mobile: The free Cancer.Net mobile app allows you to securely record the time and severity of symptoms and side effects.
ASCO Answers Managing Pain: Get this 32-page booklet about the importance of pain relief that includes a pain tracking sheet to help patients record how pain affects them. The free booklet is available as a PDF, so it is easy to print out.
ASCO Answers Fact Sheets: Read 1-page fact sheets on anxiety and depression, constipation, diarrhea, rash, and immunotherapy side effects that provide a tracking sheet to record details about the side effect. These free fact sheets are available as a PDF, so they are easy to print, fill out, and give to your health care team.
The next section in this guide is Follow-up Care. It explains the importance of checkups after cancer treatment is finished. Use the menu to choose a different section to read in this guide.