Along the way, through my 30 radiation treatments, I gathered a few tips and tricks that helped to ease or lessen some of the side effects and symptoms that come with head and neck cancer treatments. This list includes my top 7 items that tend to help during head and neck radiation therapy that you can buy OTC (over the counter) at your local drug store:
At some point you will likely lose your sense of taste. It’s an unpleasant and unfortunate experience but it seems to be one of the more common ones. There’s a certain taste that lingers in your mouth that almost makes you a bit nauseous and it’s hard to find something that gets rid of it, even brushing your teeth a zillion times. My gut instinct when this started happening to me was to throw a piece of mint gum in my mouth, which had usually helped when I otherwise had a bad taste in my mouth. This situation couldn’t be that different, right?…Boy, was I wrong. While I didn’t have visible damage from radiation in my mouth yet, chewing gum burned my tongue and gums something serious. So I went on a search for an alternative…lemon drops. Sweet things were hard for me too, so I was honestly a bit skeptical of this one, but surprisingly, it helped cut the trash-like taste from my mouth and actually got some saliva floating around in there too. That’s a win/win.
This one’s marketed as an expectorant, but it also has some secret powers when it comes to thick saliva. Rope-like saliva is another lovely side effect of H&N radiation therapy and when your saliva is less than normal and then it starts to thicken, swallowing and eating become more annoying and much harder. Taking a daily recommended dose of over the counter plain guaifenesin did wonders to think out my saliva, just like it promises to do with mucus when you’re sick.
Bonus: Depending on what season your treatments fall into, you might need some extra help with mucus and seasonal snot as well. Boom…thinner saliva AND thinner mucus.
I’m not sure if dizziness and nausea is on the treatment side effect list, but between the yucky taste in my mouth, the thick saliva, the crustiness in my ear canal, and general grossness of it all, I was feeling a little green by week 2 or 3. Taking a dramamine every so often during the day decreased this symptom dramatically for me and kept me feeling somewhat grounded and slightly less nauseous, which was enough to convince me to keep a full supply on hand.
Moisture is SO important for your skin during this time for comfort as well as for healing, so this ultimate healing ointment is yet another one you’ll want to keep stocked up. Aquaphor is fragrance free and generally soothing so it won’t irritate your already irritated skin more, and it wont burn like regular lotion or some of the other products out there might. It’s also a skin protectant so it keeps moisture in and bad things out (to an extent).
There are plenty of options out there to use as moisturizers during treatment, so as with most things, it’s up to you but Aquaphor is a great one. Doubles as a great chapstick too!
Every night before I went to sleep, I wrapped my head and my neck up in gauze. Sounds glamorous, right? It’s not, but it did keep my skin protected from the elements and the flopping around in the bed that I unsuccessfully tried to prevent with a pillow fort. The mornings are never fun in this type of situation as it is. You’re stiff, crusty, probably still tired, and your head feels like it’s going to break off with every slight movement of your neck, but the gauze keeps it moist and keeps it from drying out too much while you’re lying still. Let’s just say it makes sleeping 90% more ridiculous looking, but makes mornings 50% better as far as comfort goes.
No, not for your ears! Q-tips for your skin. When you get to the point where your skin is sloughing off and it’s incredibly painful, q-tips were a big help for me. When I unwrapped my neck each morning and peeled the gauze away from my skin, there was always some residue of clumped up skin that had naturally come off overnight. As with most wounds, cleanliness is important but soap burns like you know what, so what can you do? I would wet the ends of a q-tip with cold water and very carefully (VERY CAREFULLY) removed the chunky parts so the fresh skin was left. Now, I do not recommend any scraping or scrubbing or anything even close to that. But using something with a mostly soft end to it can be a lifesaver on those rough mornings.