Changes to appearance
Many types of surgery for head and neck cancers will change the way you look.
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Other common changes include:
Improved surgical techniques mean that scarring is unlikely to be significant for most people. Scars from surgery are often hidden in the neck or in skin creases on the face, and usually fade over time.
If your eye or part of the jaw, nose, ear or skin is removed, your face will look different. This is the case for many people who have had extensive surgery for head and neck cancer. Some people will have reconstructive surgery using tissue from another part of the body, which may also change their appearance. Other people may have a prosthesis, which is a soft plastic replacement for the tissue that has been removed (for example, a nose prosthesis). A prosthesis is fitted by a specialist in facial prosthetics and blends in well with your own features. If it is likely you will need a prosthesis, the doctor will discuss this with you before the operation.
In some cases, your surgeon will cut through your jaw (mandibulotomy) and reconstruct it with a plate. This involves a cut through your chin and lip, and the scars will be visible for some time.
Surgery or radiation therapy can damage lymph nodes and this can cause swelling in the tissues in the head and neck. Sometimes the swelling develops internally and is difficult to see. This swelling is known as lymphoedema.
You may be distressed or embarrassed about significant changes to the way you look. You may feel that any noticeable changes make you less attractive and worry that others will reject you.
Give yourself time to get used to any physical changes. Try to see yourself as a whole person (body, mind and personality) and not just focus on the part of you that has changed. Many people find it helps to talk about their concerns with a family member, friend or counsellor.
Talk to your doctors about how surgery and reconstruction will affect your appearance and the possibility of having plastic surgery or a facial prosthesis to rebuild parts of your face and neck. They may be able to suggest strategies to help you cope with the changes and refer you to support services.
You may also like to get in touch with the Look Good Feel Better program. This free two-hour program explains how to use skin care, hats and wigs to help restore appearance and self-esteem during and after treatment. It is aimed at men and women. Visit Look Good Feel Better for more information and to book into a workshop.
A/Prof David Wiesenfeld, Oral and Maxillofacial Surgeon, Director, Head and Neck Tumour Stream, The Victorian Comprehensive Cancer Centre at Melbourne Health, VIC; Alan Bradbury, Consumer; Dr Ben Britton, Senior Clinical and Health Psychologist, John Hunter Hospital, NSW; Dr Madhavi Chilkuri, Radiation Oncologist, Townsville Cancer Centre, The Townsville Hospital, QLD; Jedda Clune, Senior Dietitian (Head and Neck Cancer), Sir Charles Gairdner Hospital, WA; Dr Fiona Day, Staff Specialist, Medical Oncology, Calvary Mater Newcastle, and Conjoint Senior Lecturer, The University of Newcastle, NSW; Dr Ben Dixon, ENT, Head and Neck Surgeon, Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre and St Vincent’s Hospital Melbourne, VIC; Emma Hair, Senior Social Worker, St George Hospital, NSW; Rosemerry Hodgkin, 13 11 20 Consultant, Cancer Council WA; Kara Hutchinson, Head and Neck Cancer Nurse Coordinator, St Vincent’s Hospital Melbourne, VIC; A/Prof Julia Maclean, Speech Pathologist, St George Hospital, NSW; Prof Jane Ussher, Chair, Women’s Health Psychology, Translational Health Research Institute (THRI), School of Medicine, Western Sydney University, NSW; Andrea Wong, Physiotherapist, St Vincent’s Hospital Melbourne, VIC. We also thank the health professionals, consumers and editorial teams who have worked on previous editions of this title.
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