Long-term side effects of treatment
After surgery or radiation therapy, many people have to adjust to significant changes. Everyone will respond differently – talk to your doctor about what to expect and try to see a speech pathologist and/or dietitian before treatment starts.
For more on this, see Managing side effects.
Breathing changesAfter some types of throat surgery, you may need help breathing. The surgeon may insert a temporary tracheostomy tube in your neck. If you have a total laryngectomy, you’ll need a permanent hole (stoma).
Taste and smell changesIf you have a craniofacial resection, you may lose your sense of smell. Your sense of taste will also be affected. If you have a laryngectomy, air will no longer pass through your nose, which can affect your sense of smell. Surgery in the mouth may also lead to changes in taste.
Swallowing difficultiesSurgery may affect your ability to swallow. A speech pathologist can suggest ways to modify the texture of your food and drink to make them easier to swallow. If you are having difficulty eating or drinking, you may be given a temporary or permanent feeding tube.
Speech or voice changesWhether you have any changes to how clearly you speak and/or the quality of your voice will depend on the surgery you had. A speech pathologist can provide strategies to help you adjust to these changes.
Appearance changesMany types of head and neck surgery will cause temporary or permanent changes to the way you look. You may feel distressed or embarrassed about these changes. A reconstructive surgeon is often able to make physical changes (such as scars) less visible. If you have lost teeth, they may be able to be replaced/reconstructed surgically.
Vision changesIf the cancer is in your eye socket, the surgeon may have to remove your eye (orbital exenteration). Your changed vision should not prevent you from continuing activities such as driving or playing sport, but it may take time to get used to the changes.
LymphoedemaIf you have lymph nodes removed, you may have persistent swelling in the soft tissue in the head and neck.
Pain and physical discomfortSometimes pain in your neck or shoulder lasts longer than a few days after surgery. Your health care team will help you manage this. You may also have numbness, reduced or altered movement, or pain in your neck and shoulder on the side of the surgery. A physiotherapist can help you regain movement, however, any numbness may last for many months or be permanent.
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.
View the Cancer Council NSW editorial policy.
Click below to download a PDF booklet on this topic.