What to expect after surgery
How you will feel after head and neck cancer surgery will vary greatly depending on your age, your general health, how large an area is affected and whether you also have reconstructive surgery. Your surgeon can give you a better idea of what to expect after the operation.
The side effects listed below are often temporary. For more information about ongoing effects, see Managing side effects.
|Pain||You will have some pain and discomfort for several days after surgery, but you will be given pain medicines to manage this. You may take tablets or be given injections, or you may have patient-controlled analgesia (PCA), which delivers a measured dose of pain medicine through a drip when you press a button.|
|For a few days, you may have tubes at the surgery site to drain fluid from the wound into small containers. You may also have a catheter, a tube from your bladder that drains urine into a bag.|
|Speech changes||Some surgeries affect the ability to speak clearly, but your team will discuss this with you beforehand. This issue is often temporary, and a speech pathologist will help you improve your speech.|
|Breathing difficulties||If surgery is likely to cause your mouth, tongue or throat to become swollen, your surgeon will talk to you about having a temporary tracheostomy. This is a breathing tube in your neck that lets you breathe easily.|
|Sore throat||It is common to have a sore throat after surgery on the mouth or throat, but you will be given medicine to control any pain. You may also have some throat discomfort from the anaesthetic tube for a few days.|
|Eating and drinking||You will usually wake up from surgery with a drip in your arm to give you fluids. You usually won’t be allowed to eat or drink for several hours. Depending on the surgery, you may then start with clear liquids, move on to pureed food, and then soft foods.|
|Swallowing||Surgery will sometimes change the way you swallow and this can often be difficult at first. A speech pathologist will help you regain your ability to swallow.|
|Feeding tube||If eating and drinking will be difficult while you are recovering, a temporary feeding tube may be inserted through your nose (nasogastric or NG tube). Another option is a gastrostomy or PEG tube inserted into your stomach.|
|Movement||After some surgeries, you may be in bed for a couple of days. A physiotherapist will teach you breathing exercises to help clear your lungs and reduce the risk of a chest infection. As soon as possible, your team will encourage you to walk around or sit out of bed. This will speed up recovery.|
|Feeling emotional||Having head and neck surgery can be emotionally challenging. Your treatment team can support you after your surgery by talking through your feelings. You or your family may like to talk to your nurse, social worker or a psychologist.|
Podcast for people affected by cancer
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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