BACKGROUND:Newly diagnosed patients with head and neck cancer may be at risk for impaired neurocognitive function (NCF) due to disease, treatment, and lifestyle factors. METHODS:Eighty pretreatment patients with head and neck cancer and 40 control patients without cancer completed assessment of NCF and self-reported cognition, fatigue, and mood. Blood samples to evaluate organ reserves, hormones, and cytokines were collected. RESULTS:Patients experienced worse symptoms of cognitive dysfunction, fatigue, and anxiety than controls. In contrast, NCF was equivalent for patients and controls. Using published norms as comparison, groups had similar high rates of impairment in performance (9/80 patients and 3/40 controls scored in the abnormal range). CONCLUSION:Pretreatment patients with head and neck cancer reported cognitive disturbance. The frequency of impaired performance, albeit high, was consistent with the literature demonstrating false-positive "abnormal" neuropsychological test performance is not uncommon. Inclusion of a noncancer patient control cohort is essential because using solely normative data as a comparison may foster erroneous interpretation.