Head and Neck Cancer: Healthy Living Tips



  • Cut down on animal fats, salt and sugar.
  • Eat at least 5 servings (combined) of fruits and vegetables daily.
  • For cooking, use olive oil, canola oil or other unhydrogenated vegetable oils.
  • Limit your intake of alcohol.
  • If you can eat, eat foods high in protein several times a day. These foods include milk, cheese, cottage cheese, yogurt, meat, fish, eggs, beans, peanut butter and nuts. Protein helps build and repair tissue, and cancer treatments cause you to use more protein than usual.
  • To maintain your weight, eat high-calorie foods, such as margarine or butter, sugar, honey, jams, jellies, cream cheese, dried fruit, gravies or sauces, mayonnaise and salad dressing.
  • Get plenty of fluids to help control your body temperature and improve food elimination. In addition to water, fruit juices and other liquids, try gelatin, pudding, soups, fruit bars and ice cream.
  • Eat small meals throughout the day instead of 3 large ones. Keep snacks handy to eat when you are hungry.
  • Eat with friends or play your favorite music at mealtime to boost your appetite.
  • Eat your biggest meal in the morning. Many people getting treatment for cancer find that this is when their appetite is greatest.
  • If you can, increase your activity level. Doing so may boost your appetite.
  • On days you do not feel like eating at all, do not worry about it. Try again the next day. If you find your appetite does not improve in several days, talk with your doctor or nurse.


  • Avoid milk and milk products.
  • Avoid gas-producing vegetables, dried fruit, fiber cereals, seeds, popcorn, nuts, corn and dried beans.
  • Eat low-residue, low-fiber foods such as those included in the BRAT diet (bananas, rice, applesauce and toast).
  • Drink more fluids, such as water and broth, to prevent dehydration.

Difficulty Chewing

  • Eat soft, smooth foods, such as yogurt, pudding and ice cream.
  • Mash or blend foods to make homemade shakes or add blended vegetables or ground meats to casseroles or soups.
  • Moisten dry foods with broth, sauces, butter or milk. Take sips of water or other liquids while eating to keep the mouth and food moist.
  • Try softer versions of your favorite fruits or vegetables, like applesauce, or pureed carrots; switch to softer fruits and vegetables, such as bananas or peas; consider eating baby food.
  • Cut food into small bites and chew slowly and thoroughly.
  • If you are losing weight, eat smaller, more frequent meals that are high in protein and calories, such as eggs, milkshakes, casseroles and nutritional shakes.
  • Avoid dry, coarse or hard foods and foods that need a lot of chewing.
  • Meet with a dietician for additional advice on eating a balanced diet.

Difficulty Swallowing

  • Eat slowly and chew food thoroughly. If a person shows signs of choking or difficulty breathing, the Heimlich maneuver should be performed immediately.
  • You may have an easier time swallowing liquids or pureed foods than solids. Avoid very cold or very hot foods if you notice that they worsen the problem.

Dry Mouth

  • Keep your mouth clean. It is important to brush your teeth with a soft toothbrush after each meal and to use mouthwashes regularly. Use mouthwashes without alcohol.
  • Encourage saliva production. Suck on sugar-free sweets or chewing sugar-free gum can encourage saliva production. Pineapple chunks, ice cubes and frozen tonic water, yogurt and buttermilk can also be helpful, although some people find that very cold foods or drinks may be too uncomfortable to use.
  • Keep your mouth moist. To keep our mouth moist, drink sips of water or sugar-free fizzy drinks regularly throughout the day. Also, rinsing your mouth with a little vegetable oil (about a teaspoon) or a small amount of softened butter or margarine can help, especially at night.
  • Cut down or avoid substances that can dry the mouth, such as alcohol, caffeine and smoking.
  • Some prescribed medicines can also cause a dry mouth and can be helpful to ask your doctor or nurse to identify these, as it may be possible to reduce the dosage or change the drug.
  • Acupuncture can also be helpful and may help to increase the amount of saliva that is produced.
  • Boost your appetite. Make sure to drink fluids with meals, include foods with high fluid content, such as jelly, pureed fruits and soft puddings in your diet. Avoid dry and thick foods such as biscuits, crackers and dry snacks.


  • Take short rests when you feel tired. Avoid long naps during the day so that you can sleep well at night.
  • Add mild exercise, such as walking, to your daily routine. It may help you sleep better.
  • Save your energy for important tasks.
  • Drink plenty of fluids. Dehydration leads to increased fatigue.
  • Take action to treat a poor appetite, because eating improperly can make you tired.
  • If your fatigue is sever or chronic, ask for help with routine tasks that can drain your energy, such as grocery shopping or housework. Some people reduce their hours at work.

Hair Loss (Alopecia)

  • Consider cutting your hair short before treatment starts.
  • Think about getting a wig, hat or scarf before your hair loss starts. That way, you can get a wig that matches your hair, and you will be ready with head coverings if you choose to use them.
  • Because your scalp may be more sensitive to temperature and sun, protect it with sunscreen and hats or scarves.


  • Drink plenty of fluids.
  • Perform light exercise, such as walking.
  • Calcium in the diet should not be reduced or eliminated because the body’s absorption of calcium is reduced in patients with hypercalcemia.

Skin Problems

  • Protect your skin from sun exposure by wearing sunscreen of at least 15 SPF.
  • Ask your doctor or nurse what kind of lotion you can use to moisturize and soothe your skin.
  • Don’t use any lotion, soap, deodorant, sunblock, cologne, cosmetics or powder on your skin within 2 hours of treatment because they may cause irritation.
  • Wear loose, soft clothing over the treated area. Cotton underwear can help prevent further irritation.
  • Don’t scratch, rub or scrub treated skin. After washing, gently blot dry.
  • Don’t bandage skin with tape. If you must bandage it, use paper tape and ask your nurse to help you place the dressings so that you can avoid irritation.
  • Don’t apply heat or cold to the treated area. Bathe only with lukewarm water.
  • Keep your nails well trimmed and clean.

Prevention of Infections

  • Keep yourself clean by bathing each day, giving extra attention to feet, groin, armpits and other moist, sweaty areas.
  • After bathing, check for redness, swelling and soreness where any tubes or catheters enter your body.
  • Wash your hands with warm water and soap after using the bathroom, blowing your nose, coughing or sneezing.
  • Wash your hands before eating and before touching your face or mucous membranes (eyes, nose, mouth, etc.).
  • Wear shoes at all times in the hospital, outdoors and at home to avoid injury and to avoid getting extra germs on your skin.
  • If you cut or scrape your skin, clean the area right away with soap and warm water. Cover the area with a clean bandage to protect it. If the bandage gets wet or dirty, clean the injury and put on a new bandage. Tell your doctor if you notice redness, swelling, pain or tenderness.

Nausea and Vomiting

  • Try eating foods and drinking beverages that were easy to take or made you feel better when you’ve had the flu or were nauseated from stress. These may be bland foods, sour candy, pickles, dry crackers, ginger ale, flat soda or others,
  • Do not eat fatty or fried foods, very spicy foods or very sweet foods.
  • Eat room-temperature or cold foods. The smells from hot foods may make your nausea worse.
  • Ask your doctor or nurse if he or she can help you learn a relaxation exercise. This may make you feel less anxious and more in control, and decrease your nausea.
  • Ask your doctor or nurse about using acupressure bands on your wrists, which may help decrease your nausea.


  • Take pain medications regularly; don’t wait for your pain to become severe (also take steps to avoid constipation, a common side effect of pain medications).
  • Change your activity level. See if you feel better if you rest more or move around more - either may help.
  • Distract yourself with music, funny videos or computer games.
  • Use relaxation techniques, such as yoga or meditation, or guided imagery exercises. Ask your doctor or nurse where you can learn more about these.