Eating problems in patients with head and neck cancer treated with radiotherapy : Needs, problems and support during the trajectory of care

Abstract: Aim: The overall aim of this thesis was to acquire knowledge about daily life with focus on eating problems during the trajectory of care for patients with head and neck cancer treated with radiotherapy. Method: The data in study I were gained from medical and nursing records of 50 patients. Documented parameters of eating problems, their causes and consequences, and undertaken interventions were collected before treatment, during radiotherapy, and one, six, and twelve months after completion of treatment, using a study-specific audit instrument. Data were analysed with descriptive and inferential non-parametric statistics. In study II eight patients were interviewed during the radiotherapy treatment period with focus on experiences of eating problems. In study III nine patients were interviewed six to twelve weeks after treatment with the focus on experiences of daily life during the trajectory of care having eating problems. In study IV twelve patients were interviewed about their conceptions of the significance of a supportive nursing care clinic during the whole trajectory of care. Data were analysed with interpretative phenomenology (II, III) and phenomenography (IV). Findings: The four studies showed that being a patient in the trajectory of care often meant that life was disturbed and threatened. This was partly due to the eating problems and their consequences, which could occur during the whole trajectory of care (I, III, IV) but was experienced as most intense and severe during radiotherapy (II) and the nearest weeks after completion of radiotherapy (III, IV). The disturbances and threats experienced due to eating problems could affect the whole person as they were physical (I-IV), psychological, social and existential (II, III). The experiences of eating problems due to the tumour and its treatment and the experience of having cancer per se were strongly connected as one phenomenon, which disturbed and threatened the informants’ daily life. The other part that disturbed the patients’ life was the waiting in suspense. A long and trying waiting in uncertainty was experienced due to lack of knowledge and support, practical as well as emotional. This was most pronounced during pauses in radiotherapy (III) and after completion of the treatment when the lack of support from the health care was obvious (I, II, III). The patients were then most often left to their own devices. In order to endure, they needed both inner strength, described as own coping strategies, and strength from outside, described as support from family, friends and health care professionals (II, III). The nurse clinic was found to give a hand to hold during the whole trajectory of care (IV). It could meet these patients’ needs of knowledge, care and support, both concerning practical measures related to the eating problems and other side-effects of the treatment, and concerning their emotional needs. In addition the nurse clinic could support the relatives in their worries and anxiety (IV). Conclusion: This thesis showed the necessity of continuous assessment, treatment and evaluation of patients’ problems, and the patients’ needs of information and support throughout the trajectory of care.