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Head and Neck Cancer Outcomes a Mixed Bag

Study finds quality of life suffers, but mental acuity may actually improve

TUESDAY, March 18 (HealthDay News) -- In the year after their first treatment, head-and-neck cancer patients experience decreases in their physical quality of life but improvements in their mental health quality of life, says a U.S. study.

In background information in the study, the researchers noted that head and neck cancer treatment such as feeding tube placement, chemotherapy and radiation "tend to produce pain, disfigurement, eating problems and communication problems. Many patients become disabled, and about one-third of patients continue to smoke, and half are depressed."

This study by David L. Ronis, of the Veterans Affairs Ann Arbor Healthcare System and the University of Michigan School of Nursing, Ann Arbor, and colleagues included 316 newly-diagnosed head and neck cancer patients.

The participants provided information about themselves, including smoking status, alcohol use, and depression. Their quality of life was assessed through measurements of physical and social functioning, eating and swallowing, communication, head and neck pain, and emotional well-being. The patients were re-assessed a year later to identify any changes in quality of life.

At the beginning of the study, smoking, symptoms of depression and co-occurring illness were associated with low quality of life scores. At the one-year follow-up, patients showed a decrease in physical functioning and eating quality of life measures, but also showed improvements in mental health.

Treatment measures -- particularly chemotherapy, radiation therapy and feeding tube placement -- were associated with a reduction in quality of life after one year. In addition, smoking and depression symptoms at the start of the study "remained significant predictors of several quality of life scales at one year."

The study was published in the March issue of the journal Archives of Otolaryngology -- Head & Neck Surgery.

By treating depression and emphasizing the negative effects of smoking, physicians may be able to improve head and neck cancer patients' quality of life, the study authors suggested.

Each year in the United States, more than 40,000 people are diagnosed with head and neck cancer, according to background information in the study.

More information

The National Cancer Institute has more about head and neck cancer.

-- Robert Preidt

SOURCE: JAMA/Archives journals, news release, March 17, 2008

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