Every type of cancer presents its own set of problems, but people being treated for head and neck cancers experience some of the most unique and daunting challenges. Head and neck cancers refer to cancers of the mouth, tongue, throat, larynx, sinuses, tonsils, and similar structures. Some 40,000 cases are diagnosed in the United States each year.

Treatment usually consists of surgery and/or radiation therapy, with chemotherapy used in certain situations. The side effects of treatment can be significant: difficulty chewing, swallowing, or speaking; losing the sense of taste; and a terrible sore throat that can last for months.

Speaking and eating are such fundamental human functions that we take them for granted. When was the last time you gave any thought to your salivary glands? They produce saliva which enables us to swallow. These glands can be affected by radiation treatment for head and neck cancer. If the salivary glands don’t work, eating becomes a major challenge.

Surgery for head and neck cancers can affect how you look. I had breast cancer and can cover my scar with my shirt. If cancer surgery affects your face or neck, it may be impossible to hide. Surgical techniques have improved dramatically, but any surgery involving your most visible body parts has the capacity to affect your sense of self.

I’ve known several people with head and neck cancers and they’ve impressed me with their tenacity. Some have relearned how to swallow, others have relearned how to speak. It’s very much like rehabilitation after a major injury, involving a multidisciplinary team of professionals and a great deal of hard work on the part of the patient.

The loved ones of people with head and neck cancers have challenges too. It takes some adjustment when your mate looks or sounds different, even if only temporarily.

Like with other cancers, uncertainty is a recurring theme. Will the side effects go away and, if so, when? How will people react when they first see you? Will the cancer come back?

Support groups specifically for people with head and neck cancers are especially helpful because no one else fully understands what it’s like to be treated for these cancers. I often refer people to the national organization Support for People with Oral and Head and Neck Cancer (www.spohnc.org; 800-377-0928) for their excellent resources. We’re also exploring the possibility of forming a local group.

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