How patients adjust psychologically to the experience of head and neck cancer: A grounded theory

Numerous physical and psychological challenges are recognised as consequences of head and neck cancer and its treatment, but little is known about how patients adjust psychologically to these experiences. This study aimed to develop a theoretical understanding of the processes patients engage in when adjusting to head and neck cancer. Twelve patients participated in semi‐structured interviews conducted individually and transcribed verbatim. Data were analysed using grounded theory methodology. Analysis generated a core category of “modifying my relationship to the changes cancer brings,” which encompassed 11 processes patients engaged in throughout their adjustment: “survive mode,” “instrumental support from others,” “making a choice,” “developing own understanding,” “acceptance,” “talking with others,” “making changes,” “redefining or regaining normality,” “managing emotions/distressing thoughts,” “putting things into perspective” and “barriers to progress.” Contrasting findings are discussed, and a model of psychological adjustment to head and neck cancer is proposed. The study found that patients engage in a series of processes throughout adjustment to head and neck cancer, which broadly map on to the cancer treatment trajectory, though these processes did not appear to be specific to head and neck cancer. The proposed model may be used as a framework to guide psychological interventions.


University of Lincoln, College of Social Science Research

Louise Calver, Division of Psychiatry & Applied Psychology, University of Nottingham

Anna Tickle, Division of Psychiatry & Applied Psychology, University of Nottingham

Sanchia Biswas, Nottinghamshire Healthcare NHS Foundation Trust, King’s Mill Hospital

Nima Moghaddam, Trent DClinPsy Programme, University of Lincoln