Mental Health Issues in Head and Neck Cancer Patients Caused by the COVID – 19 Pandemic

By: Itzhak Brook, M.D. MSc., HNCA Board Member, HNCA Ambassador, Throat Cancer Survivor and Laryngectomee

The current COVID-19 outbreak is spurring depression, fear, anxiety, and stress on a societal level. On an individual level, it may exacerbate anxiety and psychosis-like symptoms as well as lead to non-specific mental issues (e.g., mood problems, sleep issues, phobia-like behaviors, panic-like symptoms). Head and neck cancer patients (HNCP) (including laryngectomees) are more vulnerable to these psychological issues as well as the viral infection. Laryngectomees may experience increased social isolation and loneliness.

Contributing to these are the difficulties in getting medical and diagnostic care, prescription drugs, and medical supplies; and the economic situation.

HNCP with mental health issues such as OCD, PTSD, anxiety and depressive disorders, and paranoia may experience an exacerbation of their symptoms.

HNCP can be proactive and alleviate some of their psychological vulnerability by:

  • Reaching out and seeking support from mental health professionals (i.e., psychiatrists, psychologists, social workers)
  • Getting medical and other supplies delivered to one’s residence  
  • Engaging in healthy distractions such as reading, watching movies, taking walks, exercising, and learning a new skill
  • Developing a routine
  • Obtaining information from reliable sources
  • Curbing media exposure to certain times in the day
  • Being aware of what is anxiety and what is the reality in one’s thoughts and conversations
  • Following guidelines (i.e., using prescribed handwashing methods, avoiding touching the face, avoiding hugging and shaking hands, staying at home and contacting one’s medical provider when experiencing medical problems)
  • Connecting with family and friends through the internet, social media, video calls, and phone

Following these guidelines can assist HNCP to navigate through the coronavirus pandemic.

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I still have challenges as a result of the treatments, and probably will for the remainder of my days. But every day that I have to endure these reminders, is another day that I get to appreciate still being here, experiencing the joy of being with my family.Tony Langford
Survivor of Stage IV Tongue and Tonsil Cancer

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