Well-being and recovery after head and neck cancer treatment

When treatment ends, you may feel relieved, but also uncertain about the future. There may be physical changes in the way you look. Or there may be changes in the way you speak or what you can eat.

You may want to make changes to your lifestyle and find out more about healthy living. There are things you can do to help your body recover. These can also help improve your well-being and lower your risk of getting other illnesses and some cancers. They include:

  • Eating a well-balanced diet, including lots of fresh fruit and vegetables, low amounts of sugary food and drink and processed red meats.
  • Stopping smoking to lower the risk of the cancer coming back, developing a second cancer and developing osteoradionecrosis of the jaw.
  • Drinking less alcohol to lower the risk of developing another head and neck cancer. Keep to the NHS guidelines for drinking alcohol.
  • Keeping active to increase your energy levels and sense of well-being. It also has other health benefits.

Some people also find that complementary therapies help them feel better and improve symptoms.

Well-being and recovery

When cancer treatment ends, it can be a time of mixed emotions. You will probably feel relieved, but may also feel anxious and uncertain about the future. It can take time to rebuild confidence and accept what you have been through.

You may be keen to get back to doing all the things you did before cancer. But often this is not possible straight away. It may take time to recover from treatment.

There may be physical changes in the way you look. Or there may be changes in the way you speak or what you can eat. There will also be emotional changes to deal with. It is important to give yourself time to adjust.

There are organisations that can support you. Or you can speak to one of our cancer support specialists by calling the Macmillan Support Line on 0808 808 00 00. We also have information about life after cancer treatment and body image, which you may find helpful.

After treatment, you may find that everyday things that you did before cancer will slowly start to fit back into your life. Going back to work and getting back to the interests you had before can be important steps forward. You can talk to your specialist or nurse about the right time to return to work or restart other activities.

Some people feel that the treatment has helped them think about their priorities. They may decide to focus more on relationships with family and friends. Or they may decide to do the things they have always wanted to do.

You may want to think about making changes to your lifestyle and find out more about healthy living. Perhaps you already followed a healthy lifestyle before your cancer. But now you may want to focus more on making the most of your health. There are things you can do to help your body recover. These can also help improve your well-being and lower your risk of getting other illnesses and some cancers.


Eat a well-balanced diet

If you can, try to eat a healthy, well-balanced diet, even if you have less of an appetite or interest in food.

A well-balanced diet includes:

  • lots of fresh fruit and vegetables
  • wholegrain foods and pulses
  • a low amount of sugary food and drinks – this is particularly important if you have less saliva
  • a low amount of processed and red meats and other high calorie foods, such as fast foods.

Eating well helps you keep your strength and increases your energy and sense of well-being. It can also help reduce the risk of new cancers and other diseases, such as heart disease, diabetes or having a stroke. It can be difficult to eat well after treatment for head and neck cancer, but your dietitian can help you.

An image of a clinical oncologist talking to a nurse

Watch our healthy eating and cancer video playlist

In these videos, learn more about the link between healthy eating and cancer, and ways to maintain the best possible diet during treatment.

Watch our healthy eating and cancer video playlist

In these videos, learn more about the link between healthy eating and cancer, and ways to maintain the best possible diet during treatment.


Stop smoking

If you smoke, giving up is one of the healthiest decisions you can make. Stopping smoking:

  • may reduce the risk of cancer coming back
  • reduces your risk of developing a second cancer in your head or neck
  • reduces your risk of developing other smoking-related cancers and heart disease
  • can make possible late effects of treatment less severe
  • reduces the risk of osteoradionecrosis of the jaw (when healthy bone tissue becomes damaged and dies).


Drink less alcohol

Drinking alcohol as well as smoking greatly increases your risk of developing another head and neck cancer. If you drink alcohol, drinking less will help reduce this risk.

Many people find making this positive choice helps give them back a sense of control. It can also help you feel that you are doing the best for your health.

NHS guidelines suggest that both men and women should:

  • not regularly drink more than 14 units of alcohol in a week
  • spread the alcohol units they drink in a week over three or more days
  • try to have several alcohol-free days every week.

A unit of alcohol is half a pint of ordinary strength beer, lager or cider, one small glass (125ml) of wine, or a single measure (25ml) of spirits.

There is more information about alcohol and drinking guidelines at drinkaware.co.uk


Try to keep active

Keeping active can be an important part of your recovery after treatment. It can increase your energy levels and improve your sense of well-being. It also reduces the risk of heart disease, stroke and diabetes.

You should do physical activity at your own pace. Gentle exercise, such as going for a short walk, may be enough. Your doctor, nurse or physiotherapist can advise you how much and what type of exercise would be helpful for you. Start slowly and increase your activity over time.

We have more information about the benefits of exercise.


Try to reduce stress and make time to relax

Reducing stress in your life and relaxing more can help you to recover after treatment. People have different ways of reducing stress. Complementary therapies are one way to help reduce stress and can help you to feel relaxed.


Complementary therapies

Some people find that complementary therapies can help them feel better and reduce symptoms. Complementary therapies can include acupuncture, massage, aromatherapy and relaxation techniques. Many hospitals and hospices offer these therapies.

If you would like to try a complementary therapy, check with your cancer specialist or GP before using it. This is important because some complementary therapies should be avoided during, and for a short time after, cancer treatments.

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