Supportive Care in Cancer

, Volume 19, Issue 7, pp 871–881 | Cite as

Evidence for interventions to improve psychological outcomes in people with head and neck cancer: a systematic review of the literature

Review Article



In addition to cancer-related distress, people with head and neck cancer (HNC) endure facial disfigurement and difficulties with eating and communication. High rates of alcohol use and socio-economic disadvantage raise concerns that patients with HNC may be less likely than others to participate in and adhere to psychological interventions. This article aims to inform future practice and research by reviewing the evidence in support of psychological interventions for this patient group.


We searched CENTRAL, Medline, Embase, PsycINFO and CINAHL in December 2009. Relevant studies were rated for internal and external validity against the criteria of the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ) US Preventive Services Task Force. Wherever possible, outcomes were evaluated using effect sizes to confirm statistically significant results and enable comparison between studies. Meta-analysis was planned according to criteria in the Cochrane Handbook for Systematic Reviews. Levels of evidence for each intervention type were evaluated using AHRQ criteria.


Nine studies met inclusion criteria. One study was rated ‘good’ for internal validity and four for external validity. Psycho-education and/or cognitive–behavioural therapy were evaluated by seven studies, and communication skills training and a support group by one study each. Significant heterogeneity precluded meta-analysis. Based on a study-by-study review, there was most support for psycho-education, with three out of five studies finding at least some effect.


Research to date suggests it is feasible to recruit people with HNC to psychological interventions and to evaluate their progress through repeated-outcome measures. Evidence for interventions is limited by the small number of studies, methodological problems, and poor comparability. Future interventions should target HNC patients who screen positive for clinical distress and be integrated into standard care.


Head and neck cancer Psychological interventions Systematic review Distress Anxiety Depression Quality of life 



We wish to acknowledge the support of the Psycho-oncology Co-operative Research Group (PoCoG), which provided the opportunity for the authors to collaborate on this review.

Conflict of interest

No organisation sponsored this research. No primary data were collected. The authors agree to allow the journal to review data subjected to secondary analysis in this article if requested.


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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag 2011

Authors and Affiliations

  • T. Luckett
    • 1
    • 2
    • 6
  • B. Britton
    • 3
    • 4
  • K. Clover
    • 3
    • 4
  • N. M. Rankin
    • 1
    • 5
  1. 1.Psycho-oncology Co-operative Research Group (PoCoG)The University of SydneySydneyAustralia
  2. 2.Improving Palliative Care through Clinical Trials (ImPaCCT) South Western Sydney Clinical School, Faculty of Medicine,University of NSW (UNSW)SydneyAustralia
  3. 3.Psycho-oncology ServiceCalvary Mater HospitalNewcastleAustralia
  4. 4.Centre for Brain and Mental Health ResearchUniversity of NewcastleNewcastleAustralia
  5. 5.Health research consultantBulliAustralia
  6. 6.Department of Palliative CareBraeside HospitalWetherill ParkAustralia

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