Head and neck cancer (HNC) is a group of cancers that affect the mouth, throat, voice box, sinuses, nasal cavity, or salivary glands. There are an estimated 430,000 HNC survivors in the United States, with 65,000 more diagnosed each year. Unlike many cancers, when treatment is over, life does not go back to normal for most survivors. Many are left with devastating and enduring side effects from surgery, radiation and/or chemotherapy.
Gets us where we live
HNC hits at everything that makes us social beings. Some survivors lose their voices; the lucky ones only suffer temporarily, but those who have their voice boxes removed are permanently unable to speak, to sing, to hum a favorite tune. With time, they will learn a new method of speaking, but it does not replace natural speech. Friends and family often distance themselves because they’re uncomfortable with the survivor’s new voice. Imagine people pulling away just because you sound different.
Many survivors lose their ability or desire to eat. The teeth or jaw may be damaged or removed. Destruction of the salivary glands may leave them with extensive and permanent dry mouth that affects taste. Changes to the throat often result in swallowing problems that cause episodes of aspiration and coughing, leaving many survivors too embarrassed to eat around others. Imagine no longer being able to enjoy a meal with family and friends.
The social pressure
Then there’s the stigma associated with HNC. Smoking and drinking are traditionally considered the strongest risk factors for HNC. Human papillomavirus (HPV), a sexually transmitted infection, is now also known to be responsible for a growing number of throat cancers. Because of this, many survivors are blamed for their cancer. Imagine being blamed for the most devastating experience of your life, even if you did nothing wrong.
Factors like these lead many survivors to isolate from society. In fact, the HNC patient population has one of the highest rates of suicide among all cancer populations.
If you know a survivor, support them, be patient as they learn their “new normal,” and remember that no matter how difficult these adjustments are for you, they are more difficult for the survivor. They need your support now more than ever.If you’re not living with HNC, consider yourself lucky. Look into preventive measures, like the HPV vaccine, or quitting tobacco or alcohol. And be vigilant about watching for symptoms of HNC — early detection improves the odds of survival and helps avoid the devastating lifelong side effects.