‘I didn’t even recognise myself’: Survivors’ experiences of altered appearance and body image distress during and after treatment for head and neck cancer
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© 2021 The Authors. Published by MDPI Publishing.
Purpose: Preparation for head and neck cancer treatment is focused on practicalities of treatment. Little or no time is spent prior to treatment discussing aesthetic results of treatment or the psychosocial impact of living with an altered appearance after treatment. The objective of this study was to explore the experiences of survivors of head and neck cancers, with a focus on the psychosocial impact of altered appearance.
Methods: A qualitative research approach based on social constructionist theory was used. Twenty-one semi-structured interviews were conducted with survivors of head and neck cancer who had been diagnosed in the previous six years. Thematic analysis was used to identify themes.
Results: People diagnosed with HNC reported feeling rushed into treatment, with adequate procedural preparation but little or no preparation related to appear-ance. The main themes included: Preparation (sub-themes: Decision-making; and Preparation for Altered Appearance); Altered Appearance (sub-themes: Weight Loss; Face, Skin and Hair Changes; and Reconstructive Surgery); and Consequences (sub-themes Reactions from Others; Adapting to Altered Appearance).
Conclusions: Body image distress related to altered appearance, contributed to psychosocial issues for many people diagnosed with head and neck cancer. Current practice provides information pre-treatment about many aspects of coping; however, the subject of appearance is not routinely addressed. Communication skills training for health professionals that improves their comfort and sensitivity in discussing and conveying compassion around issues of altered appearance, body image, and trauma, is needed to decrease suffering for survivors, support healthy adaptation to living with altered appearance, and increase their satisfaction with health care.
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