Changes to appearance

Many types of surgery for head and neck cancers will change the way you look. Common physical changes include: weight loss; tube feeding; having a tracheostomy; and using speech devices. These changes may be temporary or permanent. Other changes include:

Scars – 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.

Face – If part of the jaw, nose or skin is removed, your face will look different. Some people will have a reconstruction with a prosthesis, which is a soft plastic replacement for the tissue that has been removed. A prosthesis is fitted permanently 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.

Jaw – 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.

Swelling – During surgery or radiation therapy lymph nodes can be damaged and this can cause swelling in the head and neck areas. Sometimes the swelling develops internally and is difficult to see. Lymphoedema can be temporary or permanent and may change your appearance. This usually improves with time but some people find lymphoedema therapy helps.

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Tips for adjusting to appearance changes

Give yourself time to get used to any physical changes – You may be distressed or embarrassed about significant changes to your appearance. You may feel that any visible changes make you less attractive and worry that others will reject you.

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.

Find out more from your doctors – Ask 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.

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 for more information and to book into a workshop.

This information was last reviewed in May 2017
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