Social Supports Help Women With Head and Neck Cancer Face Disease, Treatments

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A small survey of women with head and neck cancer found that while many experience physical and emotional distress, social supports can help.

Prior research found that despite head and neck cancer accounting for only 5 to 10% of all cancers, it disproportionately impacts all aspects of quality of life. This is including the psychological and social stressors related to body image that women with the disease experience, according to research presented at the Oncology Nursing Society (ONS) Annual Congress.

“The fact that a woman with head and neck cancer has the debilitation of treatments that go along with (the diagnosis), and well as well as both temporary and physical side effects that take place can result in some definite impact on body image for these women,” Colette Baudoin, a nurse from the Louisiana State University Health Sciences Center New Orleans School of Nursing said in a presentation of her research.

The goal of Baudoin’s research was to analyze the experience of women with head and neck cancer regarding their perceived body image that resulted from diagnosis and treatment for the disease. To do this, Baudoin interviewed 20 women who were currently undergoing treatment for head and neck cancer or who had completed treatment within the last three months.

From the interviews — which remained anonymous — a few themes were observed:

  • Patients saw themselves as a changed person, be it through physical changes or role, societal and body images changes.
  • Patients experienced inward feelings and meanings regarding their cancer, such as feelings of guilt or stigma around HPV-positive disease.
  • Internal motivation and/or external support were key factors in navigating the cancer experience.

One woman involved in the study said, “I just couldn’t swallow my food properly. I had to drink water with every bite. I couldn’t do anything without swallowing water … I think it was my lowest food point after treatment when I realized everybody else can just eat like normal and I couldn’t. I just felt like crying and walking out of the room.”

Ultimately, Baudoin found that both temporary and permanent physical changes, as well as pressures to maintain psychological wellbeing and conflicts with societal roles and expectations were stressors for women who were being treated for head and neck cancer, as were the emotional and psychical complications from the disease.

“The emotional and physical changes of head and neck cancer and its treatment were compounded by psychological and social stressors for women,” Baudoin said.

However, a strong support system — which could include family, friends and other women with a similar diagnosis and experiences — helped women with head and neck cancer cope. Notably, all women involved in the study reported seeking online support groups.

Another quote from the survey highlighted how loved ones helped a woman through her experience.

“(My friends) waited and drove me back every single day,” she said. “The days I was sick, I was not going to go, they’d have a smoothie in their hand, a puke bag in the backseat and they would say, ‘Get in and shut up.’ I never had a girlfriend in my life until just a couple of years ago, and now I got these four, and they take good care of me.”

Based on these findings, Baudoin concluded that a strong support system and a holistic team of health care providers is needed to provide a range of support for women with head and neck cancer. She noted that the health care team should assess body image during and after treatment and said that more research is needed regarding long-term changes in women’s perceived body image to craft support systems that can better help this patient population.

“(Head and neck cancer) can be extremely life-altering in more ways than just the physical changes that they are going through,” Baudoin said.

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