Follow-up Care for Head and Neck Cancer Survivors: What’s in a Care Plan?

Health Writer
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Adjusting to life after head and neck cancer can be difficult. But coming up with a survivorship care plan can help you navigate this transitional period more smoothly. Think of this care plan as a guide to quality post-cancer health care. Because you will likely transition from seeing your cancer care team regularly back to seeing your primary health care provider, this plan will help ensure that everyone is on the same page and up-to-date on your health — and your care needs.

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Get started with a care plan

Talk to your primary care doctor. Did a member of your oncology team already send a survivorship care plan to your physician, describing your recommended treatment, possible side effects, and follow-up care? If so, review it together.

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DIY care plans

If your oncology team did not send a plan to your doctor, check out these online templates. Note that some are for patients to fill out, some are for doctors, and some ask you to work as a team. Choose the one that works for you. In addition to a treatment summary and description of follow-up appointments, care plans should address key aspects of future treatment, including the following...

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Get support for side effects

Yes, your treatment has ended, but side effects can linger. You and your primary care doctor should be aware of likely side effects (fatigue, nerve problems, skin changes, and memory loss, to name just a few) and how to treat them.

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Cook up a healthy diet

The same nutrients thought to help prevent cancer will likely help avoid recurrence. That means loading up on fruits and veggies (aim for 2.5 cups per day — more is better), choosing whole grains over refined grains and sugars, and saving red and processed meats for rare occasions. (Find inspiration in one woman’s story.)

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Live a healthy lifestyle

While the jury’s still out on whether exercise helps prevent recurrence of cancer, physical activity has been shown to help mitigate some of the side effects associated with cancer treatment, including fatigue. Try to get at least 150 minutes of exercise per week. Also, if you haven’t already, stop smoking and drinking.

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Watch for recurrence

Your primary care doctor will likely want to check in with you more often than they did pre-cancer. That’s because about 30 to 40 percent of head and neck cancer patients will have another bout with it near the site of the original cancer. The earlier it’s detected, the better the prognosis, so make sure you and your doctor plan for follow-up visits and imaging.

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Look beyond the physical

Just as some of your physical side effects may linger, mental health issues might also remain (or emerge). Your worries may have shifted — returning to work, fear of recurrence, and feeling uncertain about the future are all common concerns post-cancer treatment — but those worries can invoke stress. Talk to your doctor about how to cope.

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Get help navigating complications

You and your doctor should be aware of the common complications that head and neck cancer survivors face. From muscle spasms to sleep disturbances to vertigo, dealing with complications will be less scary if you are familiar with them and report them early.

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Overwhelmed? Phone a friend

All in all, a survivorship care plan should make your life easier. If developing the plan feels stressful, ask for help. Your doctor (current or former) will likely be able to help. If not, ask for help or support from a friend or family member familiar with your previous care.