Collaborating with the Head and Neck Cancer community to help patients return to work

Article first published in the Nursing Times online on 6th March 2023. Developed and funded by Bristol Myers Squibb, with input from The Swallows.

By Chris Curtis, Chief Executive Officer and Founder of The Swallows Head & Neck Cancer Support Charity

I was diagnosed with Head and Neck Cancer in May 2011. It’s difficult to know what to expect when you’re diagnosed with any cancer, but the localised effects of Head and Neck Cancer treatment can be profound. No one can prepare you for the long-lasting impact of physical disfigurement caused by treatment or being unable to communicate like you used to. Understanding these challenges, I was driven to start The Swallows and remain committed to supporting others living with Head and Neck Cancers.

Samit Hirawat

My experience with Head and Neck Cancer also highlighted the crucial role nurses play. From pre-treatment support and information through to post-treatment care, Clinical Nurse Specialists support, guide and nurture patients as they progress through a challenging pathway. While life may never be the same for cancer patients, being able to get back to familiar routines, such as getting back to work, can be a big part of the recovery process.

The results from the 2019 Beyond Clinical Outcomes survey, which we worked on in partnership with Bristol Myers Squibb (BMS), suggested that the challenges Head and Neck Cancer patients experience post-treatment contributed to 23% fewer people returning to full-time employment (BMS, 2019).

The Oral Health Foundation’s State of Mouth Cancer UK Report 2022 revealed that new cases of mouth cancer in the UK reached 8,846 in the last year, a 34% increase in the last decade (Oral Health Foundation, 2022).  That’s 8,846 people potentially leaving full-time employment due to mouth cancer, and who may need support getting back to work when the time is right.

To support Head and Neck Cancer patients, BMS partnered with The Swallows to form a specialist steering group that brought together inspiring patients alongside The Mouth Cancer Foundation, Salivary Gland Cancer UKWorking With Cancer, to co-create the Back-to-Work Guide for Head and Neck Cancer Patients.  

Collaborating with the Head and Neck Cancer community to help patients return to work

Empowering Head and Neck Cancer patients to feel more confident when considering returning to work

In July 2021 the Back-to-Work Guide for Head and Neck Cancer Patients, a co-created resource to help patients feel more confident when returning to work after time off for treatment, launched.

This guide contains information about the legal rights of a person with cancer, solutions to overcome some of the typical challenges people may face following Head and Neck Cancer treatment, and considerations on returning to the same employer or looking for a new job.

The Back-to-Work Guide for Head and Neck Cancer Patients has been distributed to patients, nurses, oncologists and carers in the UK and is one of the most visited resources on The Swallows’ website. After speaking directly with those who have used the guide to support conversations with their employers, it’s reassuring to hear how much the guide has helped:

  • One person was going to be let go from their job due to ongoing fatigue at work. When they presented the Back-to-Work Guide for Head and Neck Cancer Patients, which highlights some of the key impacts of Head and Neck Cancer, their employer retired them on full pay for three years, with no marks on their employment record;
  • Another person was asked to leave their job due to the disfigurement caused by treatment. After sharing the guide with the HR team, they received more than £60,000 in compensation and no marks on their employment record.

These are just two examples of how the guide has helped people, and I am sure this resource will continue to help patients manage conversations with their employer following treatment for Head and Neck Cancer. 

Click here to read the Back-to-Work Guide for Head and Neck Cancer Patients


Bristol Myers Squibb (2019) Beyond Clinical Outcomes ­– UK Patient Experience in Head and Neck Cancers. Bristol Myers Squibb.

Oral Health Foundation (2022) State of Mouth Cancer UK Report 2022. Oral Health Foundation.

April 2023