Thumbnail image of: Head and Throat: Illustration
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Cancer of the Head and Neck Discharge Information

What is cancer of the head and neck?

Cancer of the head and neck (head and neck cancer) is an abnormal growth of the cells that form tumors in your nose, mouth, throat, salivary glands (glands that make saliva, or spit), neck, or throat. If the cancer spreads to other parts of the body, it is still head and neck cancer, and is called metastatic head and neck cancer.

There are different types and stages of head and neck cancer based on what kind of cancer cells are found, where the tumor started and where it has spread. Knowing the type and stage of head and neck cancer you have helps your healthcare provider decide on the best treatment plan for you. It is important to diagnose and treat head and neck cancer as soon as possible. The main goals of treatment are to kill the tumor cells, prevent a localized cancer from spreading, and prevent metastatic cancer from spreading more than it already has.

The most common types of head and neck cancers include:

  • Voice box cancer (laryngeal cancer)
  • Throat cancer (hypopharyngeal cancer, nasopharyngeal cancer, or oropharyngeal cancer)
  • Nose cancer (nasal cavity cancer and paranasal sinus cancer)
  • Salivary gland cancer

The main risk factor for head and neck cancer is tobacco use, either by smoking or using smokeless tobacco. You may also be at risk for cancer of the head and neck if you are exposed to chemicals in the workplace or environment, have frequent swelling of the nose and throat from sinus problems, have the Human Papillomavirus (HPV), or have inherited certain genes from your parents.

How can I take care of myself when I go home?

How long it takes to get better depends on the type and stage of cancer, your treatment, how well you recover, your overall health, and any complications you may have.

Management

  • Your provider will give you a list of your medicines when you leave the hospital.
    • Know your medicines. Know what they look like, how much you should take each time, how often you should take them, and why you take each one.
    • Take your medicines exactly as your provider tells you to.
    • Carry a list of your medicines in your wallet or purse. Include any nonprescription medicines and supplements on the list.
    • Talk to your provider before you use any other medicines, including nonprescription medicines.
  • Your provider may prescribe medicine to:
    • Treat pain
    • Treat or prevent an infection
    • Treat or prevent anemia, which means you have too few red blood cells to carry enough oxygen to your body. Anemia may be caused by your cancer, your treatment, or other problems.
    • Treat or prevent side effects, such as nausea or constipation, from other treatments
    • Reduce swelling in the airways
    • Help your immune system fight cancer
  • You may need to continue a rehabilitation program after you leave the hospital to help you adjust to swallowing or speaking after surgery.
  • If you have had surgery, to care for your surgical wound:
    • Keep your surgical wound clean.
    • If you are told to change the dressing on your surgical wound, wash your hands before changing the dressing and after disposing of the dressing.
  • Follow activity restrictions, such as not driving or operating machinery, as recommended by your healthcare provider or pharmacist, especially if you are taking pain medicines.
  • Take care of your health. Try to get at least 7 to 9 hours of sleep each night. Eat a healthy diet and try to keep a healthy weight. If you smoke, try to quit. If you want to drink alcohol, ask your healthcare provider how much is safe for you to drink. Learn ways to manage stress. Exercise according to your healthcare provider’s instructions.
  • You may need other treatments for your cancer after you leave the hospital. Treatments may include:
    • Chemotherapy (anticancer drugs), which uses medicine to kill cancer cells. Different types of chemotherapy may be given in the hospital, outpatient clinic, or at home.
    • Radiation therapy, which uses high-energy X-rays to kill cancer cells. Radiation treatment may be done in the hospital or and outpatient clinic.

Appointments

  • Follow your provider’s instructions for follow-up appointments and routine tests.
  • Keep appointments for all other testing you may need, which may be done to look for signs that the cancer has returned or has spread. Testing may include:
    • Blood tests to check for certain hormones, proteins, or chemicals that may be high if you have cancer
    • Bone X-rays: Pictures of the inside of your bones to check for cancer
    • Bone scan: A series of detailed pictures that are taken after your healthcare provider injects a small amount of radioactive material into your blood. The scan shows any areas of bone where the radioactive material is being absorbed.
    • Chest X-ray: Pictures of the inside of your chest to check for cancer
    • Computed tomography (CT) scan: A series of X-rays taken from different angles and arranged by a computer to show thin cross sections of the nose, mouth, throat and other areas where the cancer may have spread
    • Endoscopy: A test in which uses a thin, flexible, lighted tube through your nose or mouth and down into your throat to look for abnormal cells
    • Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI): A powerful magnetic field and radio waves are used to take pictures from different angles to show thin cross sections of the nose, mouth, throat and other areas where the cancer may have spread
    • Positron emission tomography (PET) scan: A series of detailed pictures that are taken after your healthcare provider injects a small amount of radioactive material into your blood. The scan shows areas where the radioactive material is being absorbed.
  • Talk with your provider about any questions or concerns you have.

Call emergency medical services or 911 if you have new or worsening:

  • Swelling of your lips, tongue, and throat that make it hard to breathe or swallow
  • Trouble breathing

Do not drive yourself if you have any of these symptoms.

Call your healthcare provider if you have new or worsening:

  • Heartburn or indigestion
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Coughing up mucus that is thick or blood-stained
  • Drooling or trouble swallowing
  • Dehydration, which means losing too much fluid from your body. This can often happen if you have frequent vomiting or diarrhea.
  • Dizziness or lightheadedness
  • Depression
  • Signs of infection around your surgical wound. These include:
    • The area around your wound is more red or painful
    • Your wound area is very warm to touch
    • You have blood, pus, or other fluid coming from the wound area
    • You have a fever of 100.5 degrees F (38.1 degrees C) or higher
    • You have chills or muscle aches

For more information:

Contact national and local organizations such as:

Developed by RelayHealth.
Acute Care Advisor 2015.1 published by RelayHealth.
Last modified: 2014-12-19
Last reviewed: 2014-12-18
This content is reviewed periodically and is subject to change as new health information becomes available. The information is intended to inform and educate and is not a replacement for medical evaluation, advice, diagnosis or treatment by a healthcare professional.
Copyright ©1986-2015 McKesson Corporation and/or one of its subsidiaries. All rights reserved.

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