Although radiotherapy is very effective for many head and neck cancers, it’s a hard treatment. When it is combined with chemotherapy it’s even harder.

The young man on the left is a university student who endured this treatment at the beginning of the year. That’s him in normal attire on the right of the basketball court picture.

Many centres use green mesh masks but the young woman on the bottom right was treated in Palmerston North and had a white mask. They always look a bit more gruesome, I think.

We have a multitude of pictures of people posing and smiling with their masks but that disguises the fact that most of us react in horror when we first see them and struggle with the concept of being clipped down onto a table to be radiated. The radiation is quite brief and doesn’t hurt but the side effects are awful. Added to that is the number of patients who suffer from claustrophobia under the mask.

The initial side effects are due to burning. The neck is burnt on the outside, the oral mucosa (inside of mouth) is burnt on the inside resulting in severe pain only relieved by opiates. The burning of the outside skin looks horrible but it heals more quickly than the inside of the mouth and is not related to the long term side effects for teeth, mouth opening and swallowing that beset many of us. 

This post is to remind us as we near World Head and Neck Cancer Day that the disease is much easier to treat if it’s caught early. It is no longer a disease of older people and in many cases it can be prevented in future generations.