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Life after treatment

For most people, the cancer experience doesn’t end on the last day of treatment. Life after cancer treatment can present its own challenges. You may have mixed feelings when treatment ends, and worry that every ache and pain means the cancer is coming back.

Some people say that they feel pressure to return to “normal life”. It is important to allow yourself time to adjust to the physical and emotional changes, and establish a new daily routine at your own pace. Your family and friends may also need time to adjust.

Cancer Council 13 11 20 can help you connect with other people who have had head and neck cancer, and provide you with information about the emotional and practical aspects of living well after cancer.

Download our booklet ‘Living Well after Cancer’

After treatment ends, you will have regular appointments with your specialists to monitor your health, manage any long-term side effects and check that the cancer hasn’t come back or spread. You may have blood tests and imaging scans, as well as physical and visual examinations of your head and neck. You will also be able to discuss how you’re feeling and any other concerns. You will receive continued support from a speech pathologist, dietitian, occupational therapist, physiotherapist, psychologist and social worker if you need it. You may also be asked to see your dentist regularly.

When a follow-up appointment or test is approaching, many people find that they think more about the cancer and may feel anxious. Talk to your treatment team or call Cancer Council 13 11 20 if you are finding it hard to manage this anxiety. You will usually continue to have check-ups for five years, but they will become less frequent if you have no further problems. Between follow-up appointments, let your treatment team know immediately of any symptoms or health problems.

For some people, head and neck cancer does come back after treatment, which is known as a recurrence. Sometimes this will be another cancer of the head and neck, but it can also be the original cancer that has spread to another part of the body. This is why it’s important to have check-ups.

If the cancer does come back or you develop a new cancer, it is important that you are reviewed by an experienced multidisciplinary team. The treatments you are offered will vary depending on your previous treatments. Surgery, radiation therapy, chemotherapy and immunotherapy may all be options.

If you have continued feelings of sadness, have trouble getting up in the morning or have lost motivation to do things that previously gave you pleasure, you may be experiencing depression. This is quite common among people who have had cancer.

Talk to your GP, as counselling or medication – even for a short time – may help. Some people can get a Medicare rebate for sessions with a psychologist. Ask your doctor if you are eligible.

The organisation beyondblue has information about coping with depression and anxiety. Go to beyondblue or call 1300 224 636 to order a fact sheet. For 24-hour crisis support, call Lifeline 13 11 14 or visit lifeline.org.au.

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This information is reviewed by

This information was last updated September 2021 by the following expert content reviewers: A/Prof Richard Gallagher, Head and Neck Surgeon, Director of Cancer Services and Head and Neck Cancer Services, St Vincent’s Health Network, NSW; Dr Sophie Beaumont, Head of Dental Oncology, Dental Practitioner, Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre, VIC; Dr Bena Brown, Speech Pathologist, Princess Alexandra Hospital, and Senior Research Fellow, Menzies School of Health Research, QLD; Dr Teresa Brown, Assistant Director, Nutrition and Dietetics, Royal Brisbane and Women’s Hospital, QLD; Lisa Castle-Burns, Head and Neck Cancer Specialist Nurse, Canberra Region Cancer Centre, The Canberra Hospital, ACT; A/Prof Ben Chua, Radiation Oncologist, Royal Brisbane and Women’s Hospital, GenesisCare Rockhampton and Brisbane, QLD; Elaine Cook, 13 11 20 Consultant, Cancer Council Victoria; Dr Andrew Foreman, Specialist Ear, Nose and Throat Surgeon, Royal Adelaide Hospital, SA; Tony Houey, Consumer; Dr Annette Lim, Medical Oncologist and Clinician Researcher – Head and Neck and Non-melanoma Skin Cancer, Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre and The University of Melbourne, VIC; Paula Macleod, Head, Neck and Thyroid Cancer Nurse Coordinator, Northern Sydney Cancer Centre, Royal North Shore Hospital, NSW; Dr Aoife McGarvey, Physiotherapist and Accredited Lymphoedema Practitioner, Physio Living, Newcastle, NSW; Rick Pointon, Consumer; Teresa Simpson, Senior Clinician, Psycho-Oncology Social Work Service, Cancer Therapy Centre, Liverpool Hospital, NSW.