Mental health disorders in head and neck cancer patients

Old man feeling painful in the throat

Being diagnosed and treated for cancer is a stressful and emotional time for both patients and their family and friends. Unfortunately, in head and neck cancer in particular, the prevalence of mental health disorders is significantly higher after cancer diagnosis.

The quality of life and psychosocial wellbeing of head and neck cancer patients is something that has been studied in the past, but earlier this year researchers from Pennsylvania State University released their findings on prevalence of mental health in head and neck cancer patients on a larger scale than before.

Using data on over 52,000 patients, researchers investigated exactly how common mental health disorders are in patients that have been diagnosed with head and neck cancer.

Having analysed the data, researchers reported that for those diagnosed with head and neck cancer, the proportion with mental health disorders was 29.9% vs 20.6% before the cancer diagnosis. They also think it is likely that this is an understate.

This significant increase led researchers to suggest that patients with head and neck cancer should be monitored for mental health disorders.

This does not come as a huge surprise. Whilst treatments may cure patients, they can also have long lasting side effects that impact their quality of life. Difficulty speaking and swallowing, loss of taste and visible scaring or facial disfigurement are some of the consequences of treatment that patients have to live with.

A past study showed that among patients with head and neck cancer, 39% percent had depressive symptoms and 43% high levels of anxiety. Devastatingly, for survivors of head and neck cancer there is an increased risk of suicide compared with other cancers.

As present, it is clear that treatment comes with a cost. There is a great need for kinder treatments, that don’t just cure cancer, but also have minimal impact on patients who survive. This is one of the key focuses of the research into head and neck cancer that Oracle Cancer Trust funds.

We want to speed up the search for treatments that mean patients can lead as normal life as possible following cancer. You can read about some of our past success stories here, and projects that we are currently funding with the aim of finding better and kinder treatments here.

For example, testing modified radiotherapy techniques to reduce damage to the salivary glands found that 65% fewer patients reported a dry mouth than if stand radiotherapy had been given. The team that carried out this work at the Royal Marsden Hospital are now looking into how we avoid damage to taste caused by radiotherapy.

Oracle Cancer Trust continues to fund research such this at the early, with the aim of finding better but also kinder treatments for head and neck cancer patients in the future.