Implementing a cognitive behavioral intervention for patients with head and neck cancer

Support Care Cancer. 2023 Jul 19;31(8):476. doi: 10.1007/s00520-023-07948-4.


Purpose: Sequelae of and therapies for head and neck cancers (HNC) are associated with physical and functional impairment as well as increased levels of psychological distress post treatment. Given the impact of HNC and treatment on functioning (i.e., eating and talking), health-related quality of life (HRQOL) is a significant area of survivorship concern within this population. Although prior research indicates that the incidence of anxiety and depression ranges from 15 to 50%, to date, there is a paucity of research on specific psychosocial interventions related to HNC treatment and completed studies have been limited by infrequent use of a randomized design and provision of non-standardized psychosocial interventions. This study aimed to address these gaps and utilize a brief cognitive behavioral intervention (CBI) to improve (1) self-efficacy for coping with cancer, (2) depressive symptoms, (3) other psychological symptoms, and (4) HRQOL among patients with HNC.

Methods: In an effort to conduct a randomized clinical trial of those undergoing treatment for HNC, eighty-eight patients were assigned to receive either a standardized CBI or usual psychological care (N = 47 and 41, respectively) with a 1-year follow-up. The means of all variables for both groups, adjusted for baseline, were visually compared at 3, 6, and 12 months post treatment.

Results: As has been a challenge in other longitudinal HNC studies, a high degree of attrition occurred, with a loss of 35 patients from the CBI group and 29 from the usual care group. Despite the high attrition, analysis of existing data indicated that the effect of CBI was discernable among the patients who completed the course of the study. Of the 38 comparisons, 34 showed that the CBI group had the favorable outcome. Important considerations for implementation of a structured psychotherapy intervention during active cancer treatment with multiple barriers including communication challenges and practical limitations were realized.

Conclusions: The impact of HNC treatment can be particularly distressing as it often results in functional impairment and markedly changed activities of daily living among survivors. However, engaging in therapeutic methods to cope and manage distress during treatment can influence QOL and mood into the survivorship phase.

Keywords: Cognitive-behavioral; Distress; Head and neck cancer; Health-related quality of life.

Publication types

  • Randomized Controlled Trial

MeSH terms

  • Activities of Daily Living
  • Cognition
  • Cognitive Behavioral Therapy* / methods
  • Head and Neck Neoplasms* / complications
  • Head and Neck Neoplasms* / therapy
  • Humans
  • Quality of Life