Unmet needs and relationship challenges of head and neck cancer patients and their spouses

J Psychosoc Oncol. 2016 Jul-Aug;34(4):336-46. doi: 10.1080/07347332.2016.1195901.


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.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural

MeSH terms

  • Adaptation, Psychological
  • Adult
  • Aged
  • Caregivers / psychology
  • Caregivers / statistics & numerical data
  • Female
  • Head and Neck Neoplasms / psychology
  • Head and Neck Neoplasms / therapy*
  • Health Services Needs and Demand*
  • Humans
  • Interpersonal Relations*
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Qualitative Research
  • Quality of Life
  • Self Care / psychology
  • Spouses / psychology*
  • Spouses / statistics & numerical data