Health-related quality of life in head and neck cancer survivors: Evaluating the rural disadvantage

J Rural Health. 2022 Jan;38(1):54-62. doi: 10.1111/jrh.12571. Epub 2021 Mar 15.


Purpose: Head and neck cancer (HNC) survivors often experience distress and health-related quality of life (HRQOL) impairment. Research suggests that rural cancer patients may have poorer outcomes than urban patients. This study examined whether HNC patient emotional and HRQOL outcomes differ in those living in a rural versus urban location at 6 and 12 months postdiagnosis.

Methods: A total of 261 HNC patients were included from a longitudinal study of HNC outcomes. The majority were diagnosed with advanced stage cancer (51.3%); the most common cancer site was oral cavity (41.0%). Rurality was measured using the US Department of Agriculture Rural Urban Commuting Area codes. Depression was measured using the Beck Depression Inventory (BDI), general HRQOL using the Short Form-36 (SF-36), and HNC-specific HRQOL using the Head and Neck Cancer Inventory (HNCI). Analyses were 2 (group) × 3 (assessment) repeated measures ANCOVAs, controlling for demographic and clinical characteristics.

Findings: Approximately 45% of the sample lived in a rural location. Follow-up comparisons of significant overall models indicated that rural patients reported significantly more nonsomatic depression symptoms at 6-month follow-up. Rural patients were also more likely to report significantly poorer general mental HRQOL at 12-month follow-up, significantly poorer HNC-specific HRQOL related to eating at 6- and 12-month follow-up, and marginally worse aesthetics at 12-month follow-up.

Conclusions: These findings are consistent with suggestions that rural HNC patients may be at heightened risk for depression symptoms and decrements in HRQOL. Patients should be screened and regularly monitored for issues with depression and HNC-specific HRQOL throughout the survivorship period.

Keywords: cancer survivorship; depression; head and neck cancer; health-related quality of life; rurality.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Head and Neck Neoplasms*
  • Humans
  • Longitudinal Studies
  • Quality of Life*
  • Rural Population
  • Survivors