Head and Neck Surgery Patients Often Isolate Themselves: Support Group at The New York Eye & Ear Infirmary Provides Comfort and Inspiration

The Head and Neck Cancer Support Group

New York, NY (July 31, 2008) -- Most head and neck cancer patients undergo facial or oral reconstruction that results in clearly visible scars,and difficulty in speaking, eating and swallowing, challenges which frequently trigger social withdrawal and depression. The 115 head and neck cancer patients and their families who have joined a support group at The New York Eye and Ear Infirmary, however, gain strength from each other not only to carry on with life, but to lead a full one.

The group, founded over ten years ago, works with patients who have had surgery and chemotherapy for malignances of the mouth, throat, sinuses, nasal cavity, voice box and salivary glands.

“Traditionally, physicians have assessed the success of a treatment for head and neck cancer by objective measures such as tumor control, metastasis, survival time or regression,” said Henedia V. Sirilan, RN, Nursing Care Coordinator of ENT Outpatient Service. “In the past decade, however, medical and surgical oncologists have recognized the emotional and psychological benefits of treatment as a yardstick for success, and how these can lead to a return by the patient to a useful role in society.” She, along with Leticia Santana, RN, and Fe Sarmogenes, RN, assist the patients during the support group meetings and help coordinate post-surgical care.

Many of the laryngectomees in the group have had their cancerous larynx (voice box) removed and must speak with an electrolarynx, which can at first be cumbersome and embarrassing. They also have difficulty swallowing and have a small hole in the neck through which they breathe. By participating in the group, however, these patients can talk about recovery and learn from fellow patients how to avoid depression and, in some cases, suicide.

One patient in the group, Peter L, who is in his 50’s and of Chinese descent, came to New York Eye and Ear Infirmary three years ago because he had cancer of the larynx, says Sirilan.  Surgeons performed a head and neck operation, after which he became extremely weak. His spirits declined to the point that he eventually became very depressed and inactive socially and in the work world. Through the monthly support group meetings, however, he was introduced to patients in the group who had suffered through similar bad times, but now were back to their normal lives. It required intensive therapy, such as neck and arm exercises, and a strong desire to immerse himself in normal activities, but Peter L is now performing household chores and rearing the children, tasks that his wife once carried out.  His spirits are up because he is active.

According to the American Academy of Otolaryngology, there are approximately 38,000 new cases of head and neck cancer diagnosed annually and about 9,000 of these are in the larynx, the type of cancer for which the majority of New York Eye and Ear Infirmary’s group have had surgery.

The New York Eye and Ear support group is both therapeutic and educational. The group’s interdisciplinary professional team – which in addition to nurses includes a dietitian, speech pathologist, psychologist and social workers – make regular presentations. Guest speakers are also invited and include dentists (chemotherapy can require special attention to dental care for some patients), head and neck surgeons and nutritionists (weight loss can be a problem for some head and neck surgery patients, and diet modification may be needed).  Parents, siblings, offspring and caretakers attend the meetings with the patients.

The support group’s goals for the patients are straightforward: to return to their normal routine; focus on things that they can and want to do; take on challenging responsibilities and regain physical and emotional strength.  “Asking how to help and being a good listener are the most important roles of the group members,” said Sirilan.

While most families and patients are encouraged to express their needs and feeling in the group, some patients cannot relate in a group and can participate in one-on-one sessions. One suicidal patient of nurse Sirilan came to her three times a week and still calls frequently. “Each patient is different,” said Sirilan.

For more information, visit the Head and Neck Cancer Support and Rehabilitation Program page on this website. You can also join the group by calling Patricia Blaho, R.D., C.D.N. at (212) 979-4338 or completing the secure contact form below.

Join the Head and Neck Cancer Support Group

For a confidential inquiry about joining the group, please call Patricia Blaho, R.D., C.D.N. at (212) 979-4338 or use the secure form below and someone will contact you. Please note that all * fields are required.

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