What you can do to help

Caring for someone

There are many different things you can do to help a person who has head and neck cancer.

Caring for someone when first diagnosed or during treatment

When someone is first diagnosed with cancer and going through treatment, the best thing you can do is to listen and offer to help. Here are some of the ways you can support someone with cancer following diagnosis and during treatment:

  • Visit them – especially if they live on their own or you’re worried they’re feeling isolated.

  • Call or text (SMS) regularly to let them know you’re thinking of them.

  • Meet with them and listen to what they have to say.

  • Offer to go with them to appointments, especially if they are having a test or scan.

  • Help them plan for appointments, by making a list of questions to ask, or go with them and offer to audio-record the discussions or write important things down.

  • Go to a movie, take a walk in the park, or watch TV together.

  • Visit them in hospital. Take a magazine or audio book, or some fruit or a healthy snack for them.

Help with practical things like shopping, cooking, gardening, picking up kids from school or checking on elderly parents.

Here are a few examples of questions to include in the list for the doctor’s visit
When will I get the pathology results? What follow up tests will I need? What type of cancer do I have? Where is it in my body? What are the risk factors?
What things should I change to help me, for example, diet or exercise? What are the treatment options available to me? What are the chances that the treatment(s) will cure the cancer? What will happen if I don't have the treatment(s)?
How much will the treatment(s) cost? Will my health insurance cover the treatment(s)? What are the possible side effects of treatment? How can they be prevented or controlled? Am I suitable for any clinical trials?

Caring for someone after treatment

Depending on the type of cancer and treatment they had, someone with cancer may have physical changes or side effects that are temporary or permanent.

As a caregiver, you can help them cope with changes to their eating, breathing or speech. This might involve:

  • taking them to visit a physiotherapist, speech pathologist, dietitian, psychologist or dentist

  • helping them manage pain or other symptoms like dry mouth, mouth sores or ulcers

  • keeping track of what medicines they need to have and when, and being aware of possible side effects

  • helping them learn how to use or clean medical aids like a feeding tube or tracheostomy tube (a tube inserted into the neck to help with breathing).

Your family member or friend’s cancer care team can advise and help you.

  • The doctor or nurse might tell you what needs to be done, symptoms to look out for and when you should contact them.

  • Therapists (physiotherapist, speech pathologist, occupational therapist, lymphoedema nurse, exercise physiologist) and nurses will give you advice and equipment you need if the person you are caring for has a tracheostomy (a surgical procedure to help with breathing), feeding tube, wounds requiring dressings, trouble walking, shoulder stiffness, muscle weakness or swelling (lymphoedema).

  • A dietitian or nutritionist can give you tips for preparing food to make it more tasty or interesting if the person you are caring for has lost their appetite or sense of taste or smell.

  • A social worker can tell you about practical and home help you may be eligible for as a caregiver.

Practical help you can provide

All head and neck cancer survivors need to have regular follow-up visits with their doctor, sometimes for several years. The person you are caring for may need your help to remember and travel to appointments.

If they still smoke or drink a lot of alcohol this will not help their recovery. Try to find a way to support them to quit, to help their recovery and reduce the chance of the cancer coming back or a new cancer growing. This kind of support can be more difficult, so you  may want to ask one of the health professionals in the cancer care team for help on how best to support them.

Teeth and mouth care is very important after radiation therapy for head and neck cancer. Your relative may need help seeing their dentist regularly and sticking to the advice given.

Helping them cope with change

As well as practical help, you can help someone with cancer cope with any physical changes. Some people may feel self-conscious about scars, eating in public, having a stoma (breathing hole in neck), having a feeding tube, or frustrated at changes in their voice, loss of taste or sense of smell.

Try to help them understand that you see them as a whole person and are not focused on the physical change. Peer support might help, as they can meet or talk to others who have had the same treatment and share advice. Ask your cancer care team about possible support groups to contact.

Depression is very common in people who have had head and neck cancer. If you notice that they are often sad, have trouble getting up in the morning or have lost the motivation to do things they used to enjoy, suggest they talk to a psychologist or a counsellor

For advice on coping with depression or to talk to a counsellor: 1300 224 636
Cancer Council hotline: 13 11 20
Lifeline hotline: 13 11 14