Supportive Care for Patients With Head and Neck Cancer
Performing frequent assessments and assisting with hygiene is vital to preserving and improving quality of life.
Melissa A. Grier, MSN, APRN, ACNS-BC
Supporting a patient during cancer treatment is a challenge. From symptom management to psychosocial considerations, each patient’s needs vary and must be reevaluated frequently. This is especially true for patients with head and neck cancer.
Head and neck cancers often result in serious quality of life issues. Surgical resection of the affected area can cause disfigurement that not only affects function (eating, drinking, speaking, etc) but also leads to self-image concerns and depression. Radiation therapy and chemotherapy may cause a variety of unpleasant adverse effects, including burns, xerostomia, dental caries, and mucositis. Below are some considerations to help guide nursing care for this patient population.
CALL FOR REINFORCEMENTS
National Comprehensive Cancer Network guidelines recommend early involvement of a dentist, a dietitian, and a speech therapist to help address pre- and posttreatment concerns and preserve quality of life for people with head and neck cancer. The benefits of multidisciplinary collaboration for these complex cases are many but may also result in confusion and information overload for your patient. As the healthcare team provides care, you can help explain the rationale for interventions and assist them with keeping track of recommendations. Additionally, you have a team of experts you can call on when specific issues present themselves during treatment.
KEEP AN EYE OUT
A lot goes on in the life of a patient with head and neck cancer, which means everyday activities like oral and skin care may fall a little lower on their priority list. Performing frequent assessments and assisting with hygiene is vital to preserving and improving quality of life, for example:
- Help your patients use a handheld mirror to examine their mouth and throat.
- Ensure that oral care products don’t contain alcohol or other ingredients that can irritate sensitive tissue.
- Educate your patients about self-care, and guide them toward performing independent dressing changes and surgical site care.
- Encourage your patients to report any new adverse effects or concerns so they can be addressed promptly.
MEET IN THE MIDDLE
Several factors contribute to malnutrition associated with head and neck cancers. Pain related to mucositis or radiation burns decreases the likelihood that a patient will maintain adequate oral intake. Functional changes following surgery can lead to dysphagia that impairs a patient’s ability to safely receive nutrition and medication by mouth.
To ensure adequate nutrition, many patients with head and neck cancer receive a percutaneous endogastric (PEG) tube prior to beginning treatment. It’s imperative that the patient, the dietitian, and the nursing staff maintain an open line of communication and work together to meet nutritional needs. The patient will likely struggle with losing the ability to taste food and the satisfaction of choosing what they want to eat, so it’s important to allow them to control when they want to receive tube feedings and to follow up frequently to ensure the feedings are being tolerated.
When administering medication via PEG, pay close attention to administration instructions and drug interactions. Extended-release and sustained-release medications should never be crushed and given via PEG. Each medication should be crushed and administered individually, followed by a flush of room-temperature or lukewarm water. If a patient has several medications scheduled at the same time, assess whether administration times can be changed or allow enough time to administer them slowly to avoid patient discomfort related to a high volume of fluid. Lastly, pay attention to whether medication should be administered on a full or empty stomach and coordinate medication administration with tube feedings accordingly.
Although nurses can’t eliminate the hardship that patients will face during treatment for head and neck cancer, we can support them by providing compassionate and thorough care.
Melissa A. Grier, MSN, APRN, ACNS-BC, is a clinical content developer for Carevive Systems, Inc.
- Balusik B. Management of dysphagiat in patients with head and neck cancer. Clin J Oncol Nurs. 2014;18(2):149-150. doi: 10.1188/14. CJON.149-150.
- Nam J. Oral impairment linked to reduced QOL in posttherapy head and neck cancer. Oncol Nurs Advis. oncologynurseadvisor.com/headand- neck-cancer/oral-impairment-linked-reduced-qol-posttherapy-hnc/ article/740696/. Published January 31, 2018. Accessed Feb. 16, 2018.
- NCCN Clinical Practice Guidelines in Oncology. Head and neck cancers, version 1.2018 National Comprehensive Cancer Center website. nccn.org/professionals/physician_gls/pdf/head-and-neck.pdf. Published February 15, 2018. Accessed February 15, 2018.