Changes to appearance
Many types of surgery for head and neck cancer will cause temporary or permanent changes to the way you look.
Learn more about:
Weight loss – It is common to lose weight during treatment and it can be hard to put it back on.
Feeding tube – People who need a feeding tube or tracheostomy tube may feel self-conscious about it.
Scars – Improved surgical methods mean that most people won’t have major scarring. Surgeons will try to hide scars in skin creases in the neck or on the face, and the scars usually fade over time. Scars from radiation therapy may change the colour or texture of the skin.
Face – In some cases, removing the cancer means removing an eye or part of the jaw, nose, ear or skin. Some people have reconstructive surgery using tissue from another part of the body. Other people may have a prosthesis (e.g. a nose prosthesis), a soft plastic replacement for the tissue that has been removed. A prosthesis will be specially fitted to blend in well with your own features. If you are likely to need a prosthesis, the surgeon will discuss it with you before the operation.
Jaw and teeth – For certain cancers, your surgeon will need to 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 noticeable for some time. If you have lost teeth due to cancer treatment, you may be able to have further surgery to replace or reconstruct them.
Swelling – Surgery or radiation therapy can damage lymph nodes, and this can cause swelling in the tissues in the head and neck. This is known as lymphoedema.
- Give yourself time to get used to any physical changes. Some changes may be temporary and improve with time.
- Try to see yourself as a whole person (body, mind and personality) rather than focusing only on the part of you that has changed.
- Talk about how you are feeling with someone, such as a family member, friend, social worker, occupational therapist or psychologist.
- Ask your treatment team how surgery will affect your appearance and if you will be offered reconstructive surgery or a prosthesis to rebuild parts of your face and neck. Your team can suggest ways to cope with the changes and refer you to support services.
- Use clothing, makeup or accessories to highlight your best features.
- Book into a free Look Good Feel Better workshop and learn how to use skin care, hats and wigs to restore appearance and self-esteem.
Podcast: Coping with a Cancer Diagnosis
Download a PDF booklet on this topic.
A/Prof Richard Gallagher, Head and Neck Surgeon, Director of Cancer Services and Head and Neck Cancer Services, St Vincent’s Health Network, NSW; Dr Sophie Beaumont, Head of Dental Oncology, Dental Practitioner, Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre, VIC; Dr Bena Brown, Speech Pathologist, Princess Alexandra Hospital, and Senior Research Fellow, Menzies School of Health Research, QLD; Dr Teresa Brown, Assistant Director, Nutrition and Dietetics, Royal Brisbane and Women’s Hospital, QLD; Lisa Castle-Burns, Head and Neck Cancer Specialist Nurse, Canberra Region Cancer Centre, The Canberra Hospital, ACT; A/Prof Ben Chua, Radiation Oncologist, Royal Brisbane and Women’s Hospital, GenesisCare Rockhampton and Brisbane, QLD; Elaine Cook, 13 11 20 Consultant, Cancer Council Victoria; Dr Andrew Foreman, Specialist Ear, Nose and Throat Surgeon, Royal Adelaide Hospital, SA; Tony Houey, Consumer; Dr Annette Lim, Medical Oncologist and Clinician Researcher – Head and Neck and Non-melanoma Skin Cancer, Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre and The University of Melbourne, VIC; Paula Macleod, Head, Neck and Thyroid Cancer Nurse Coordinator, Northern Sydney Cancer Centre, Royal North Shore Hospital, NSW; Dr Aoife McGarvey, Physiotherapist and Accredited Lymphoedema Practitioner, Physio Living, Newcastle, NSW; Rick Pointon, Consumer; Teresa Simpson Senior Clinician, Psycho-Oncology Social Work Service, Cancer Therapy Centre, Liverpool Hospital, NSW.
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Managing cancer side effects
Learn more about the range of side effects cancer can cause, and how to manage them.