Head and Neck Cancer: Follow-Up Care

Approved by the Cancer.Net Editorial Board, 09/2022

ON THIS PAGE: You will read about your medical care after cancer treatment is completed and why this follow-up care is important. Use the menu to see other pages.

Care for people diagnosed with cancer does not end when active treatment has finished. Your health care team will continue to check that the cancer has not come back, manage any side effects, and monitor your overall health. This is called follow-up care.

Your follow-up care may include regular physical examinations, medical tests, or both. Cancer rehabilitation is a major part of follow-up care after head and neck cancer treatment. The goal of rehabilitation is to help people regain control over many aspects of their lives and remain as independent as possible.

People may receive physical therapy to maintain movement and range of movement, as well as speech and swallowing therapy to regain skills like talking and eating. Proper evaluation and treatment may often prevent long-term speech and swallowing problems. Supportive care or palliative care to manage symptoms and maintain nutrition after treatment may be recommended. Some people may need to learn new ways to eat or prepare foods differently. Learn more about cancer rehabilitation.

After treatment for head and neck cancer, people may look different, feel tired, and be unable to talk or eat the way they used to. Many people experience depression. The health care team can help people adjust and connect them with support services. Support groups may help people cope with changes following treatment, as well as mentoring programs through patient advocacy groups.

Doctors want to keep track of your recovery in the months and years ahead. Learn more about the importance of follow-up care.

Watching for recurrence

One goal of follow-up care is to check for a recurrence, which means that the cancer has come back. Cancer recurs because small areas of cancer cells may remain undetected in the body. Over time, these cells may increase in number until they show up on test results or cause signs or symptoms. During follow-up care, a doctor familiar with your medical history can give you personalized information about your risk of recurrence. Your doctor will ask specific questions about your health. Some people may have blood tests or imaging tests done as part of regular follow-up care, but testing recommendations depend on several factors, including the type and stage of head and neck cancer first diagnosed and the types of treatment given. Your doctor will also teach you which signs and symptoms of recurrence to watch for.

The anticipation before having a follow-up test or waiting for test results may add stress to you or a family member. This is sometimes called “scanxiety.” Learn more about how to cope with this type of stress.

Managing long-term and late side effects

Most people expect to have side effects when receiving treatment. However, it is often surprising to survivors that some side effects may linger beyond the treatment period. These are called long-term side effects. Other side effects called late effects may develop months or even years after treatment has ended. Long-term and late effects can include both physical and emotional changes.

Talk with your doctor about your risk of developing such side effects based on your diagnosis, your individual treatment plan, and your overall health. If you had a treatment known to cause specific late effects, you may also have certain physical examinations, scans, or blood tests to help find and manage them. For example, if you received radiation therapy, your doctor may recommend regular blood tests to check the function of your thyroid gland. Your doctor may refer you to a specialist to treat some of the late effects associated with head and neck cancer.

Keeping personal health records

You and your doctor should work together to develop a personalized follow-up care plan. Be sure to discuss any concerns you have about your future physical or emotional health. ASCO offers forms to help keep track of the cancer treatment you received and develop a survivorship care plan when treatment is completed. Survivorship care guidelines created by the American Cancer Society (ACS) and endorsed by ASCO recommend that all survivors of head and neck cancer develop a survivorship care plan with their cancer care team.

This is also a good time to talk with your doctor and health care team about who will lead your follow-up care. Some survivors continue to see their oncologist, while others transition back to the care of their primary care doctor or another health care professional. This decision depends on several factors, including the type and stage of cancer, side effects, health insurance rules, and your personal preferences. ASCO emphasizes that survivors of head and neck cancer should receive follow-up care from a multidisciplinary team that includes primary care physicians, oncology specialists, otolaryngologists, dentists, and others.

If a doctor who was not directly involved in your cancer care will lead your follow-up care, be sure to share your cancer treatment summary and survivorship care plan forms with them and with all future health care providers. Details about your cancer treatment are very valuable to the health care professionals who will care for you throughout your lifetime.

The next section in this guide is Survivorship. It describes how to cope with challenges in everyday life after a cancer diagnosis. Use the menu to choose a different section to read in this guide.