Aims: Head and Neck Cancer (HNC) patients commonly undergo radiation therapy requiring immobilisation by a mask. Some find this distressing and require medication or other support to cope with treatment. This study aimed to explore the patient experience of immobilisation masks to guide possible intervention.
Methods: Semi-structured interviews were conducted via telephone with HNC patients who had completed radiation therapy. Participants were recruited from social media and Sydney hospitals. Interviews continued until data saturation, then three further interviews were conducted for member-checking purposes. The framework method of thematic analysis was used to identify themes in the data.
Results: A total of 20 HNC survivors participated in interviews. Their median age was 53.5 (range 28-74) years and most were male (75%); median time since end of radiation therapy was 8 (range 0-24) months. Seven themes were identified: information, potential predictors of mask-anxiety, participant reactions to the mask, trajectory of mask-anxiety, supportive behaviours and communication of health professionals, coping with the mask, and thoughts and feelings about the mask.
Conclusions: Participants reported differing attitudes, perceptions and coping strategies. Inconsistent preparation and support of participants contributed to the range of their experiences. The findings fit with Lazarus and Folkman’s (1984) Transactional Model of Stress and Coping, as participants appeared to make cognitive appraisals of the mask and their coping abilities throughout treatment, resulting in variable levels of mask-related distress.