In head and neck cancer (HNC), couple-based interventions may be useful for facilitating treatment completion, patient rehabilitation, and improving both partners' quality of life. With the goal of identifying targets for future interventions, we conducted a qualitative study to understand patient and spouse unmet needs and relationship challenges during curative radiotherapy for HNC. Semistructured interviews were conducted with six HNC patients (83% male) and six spouses (83% female) within 6 months of completing treatment. Interviews were audiotaped and transcribed using grounded theory analysis. Patients and spouses identified several unmet needs including better preparation regarding the severity of physical side effects, a clearer timeline for recovery, and strategies for dealing with their own and each other's emotional reactions. Caregiver's unmet needs included balancing competing roles/responsibilities, making time for self-care, and finding effective strategies for encouraging patient's self-care. Eighty-three percent of spouses and all patients reported increased conflict during treatment. Other relationship challenges included changes in intimacy and social/leisure activities. Findings suggest that couple-based interventions that emphasize the importance of managing physical and psychological symptoms through the regular practice of self-care routines may be beneficial for both patients and spouses. Likewise, programs that teach spouses ways to effectively motivate and encourage patients' self-care may help minimize conflict and help couples navigate HNC treatment and recovery together as a team.
Keywords: caregiving; couples; head and neck cancer; qualitative interviews; spouses.