Living with head and neck cancer : a health promotion perspective - a qualitative study

Abstract: Background and aim: In society there is a growing awareness that a vital factor for patientswith chronic diseases, such as head and neck cancer (HNC), is how well they are able to function in their every day lives – a common, but often overlooked, public health issue. The overall aim of this thesis is to reach a deeper understanding of living with HNC and to identify the experiences that patients felt promoted their health and well-being. It also explores the patients' experiences of contact and care from health professionals and whether these encounters could increase their feelings of health and well-being; salutogenic approach.Methods: This thesis engages a qualitative data design. On three occasions, 35 purposivelyselected patients were interviewed (31 from Sweden and one from Denmark, Finland, Island, and Norway). The first study was conducted in the Nordic counties (I), and the remainingstudies were conducted in Sweden (II, III, IV). Interviews were performed on a single basis(I, II, III) and then repeated (IV). The individual, semi-structured qualitative interviews usedopen-ended questions (n=53). Three different forms of analyses were used: critical incident technique (I), thematic content analysis (II), latent content analysis (III), and interpretativedescriptive analysis (paper IV).Findings: Living with head and neck cancer was expressed as living in captivity, in the sensethat patients' sometimes life-threatening symptoms were constant reminders of the disease. The patients experienced a threat against identity and existence. Patients struggled to find power and control over everyday life, and if successful this appeared to offer them better health and well-being along with spiritual growth. The general understanding was that these patients had strong beliefs in the future despite living on a virtual rollercoaster. The patients went through a process of interplay of internal and external enabling that helped them acquire strength and feelings of better health and well-being. Consequently, they found power and control from inner strength and other health resources, e.g. social networks, nature, hobbies, activity, and health professionals. However, the findings also revealed the opposite; that some patients were more vulnerable and felt powerless and faced everyday life with emotional and existential loneliness. They were dependent on next of kin and health professionals. Having good interpersonal relationships and emotional support 24 hours a day from next of kin were crucial, as were health promoting contacts and care from health professionals. This health promoting contact and care built on working relationships with competent health professionals that were available, engaged, respectful, validating, and, above all experienced in the treatment phase. But many patients experienced not health promoting contact and care – and a sense of not being respected, or even believed. Added were the patients' experiences of inadequate coordination between phases of their lengthy illness trajectory. They felt lost and abandoned by health services, especially before and after treatment.Conclusions: Inner strength, good relationships with next of kin, nature, hobbies, andactivities could create strength and a sense of better health and well-being. Patients experienced a mutual working relationship during dialoguing and sensed co-operation and equality in encounters with competent health professionals. This could lead to enhanced power and control i.e. empowerment in a patient's everyday life. The findings highlight psychosocial rehabilitation in a patient-centred organisation when health professionals supportpatients' inner strength and health resources , and also offer long-term support to next of kin.Finally, this research suggests that if health professionals could gain a deeper understanding of the psychosocial, existential, social, and economic questions on patients' minds, they could better sense how patients feel and would be better equipped not only to offer greater support, but to raise their voices to improve health policy and health care for these patients.