Body image distress in head and neck cancer patients: what are we looking at?

Head and Neck Cancer

Support Care Cancer. 2020 Sep 3. doi: 10.1007/s00520-020-05725-1. Online ahead of print.


PURPOSE: The aim of the present study is to investigate the prevalence of body image distress among head and neck cancer (HNC) patients after treatment and to examine its association with sociodemographic and clinical factors, health-related quality of life (HRQOL), HNC symptoms, sexuality, self-compassion, and psychological distress. Second, we aim to explore daily life experiences of HNC patients regarding body image.

METHODS: A cross-sectional survey among HNC patients investigated the prevalence of body image distress based on the Body Image Scale. Multivariable logistic regression analysis was applied to study associations with sociodemographic and clinical factors, HRQOL (EORTC QLQ-C30), HNC symptoms (QLQ-HN43), sexuality (FSFI-6; IIEF-5), self-compassion (SCS-SF), and psychological distress (HADS). Qualitative data from a body image writing intervention was used to explore experiences in daily life related to body image.

RESULTS: Body image distress was prevalent in 13-20% (depending on cut-off scores) of 233 HNC patients. Symptoms of depression (p < 0.001), younger age (p < 0.001), problems with social contact (p = 0.001), problems with wound healing (p = 0.013), and larger extent of surgery (p = 0.014) were associated with having body image distress. This model explained 67% of variance. Writing interventions of 40 HNC patients showed that negative body image experiences were related to appearance and function, with social functioning problems described most often.

CONCLUSION: Prevalence of body image distress in HNC patients, using different cut-off scores, is 13-20%. Younger patients, patients after extensive surgery, and patients who had wound healing problems are most at risk. There is a significant association between body image distress and depressive symptoms and social functioning.