Coping with physical changes after treatment for head and neck cancers
It can be distressing if you need surgery to part of your head or neck. When surgery affects your looks, it can alter the way that you think of yourself as a person and can be very difficult to deal with.
Some side effects that develop during treatment may take a long time to improve, or may occasionally become permanent (long-term effects). Other effects can develop many years after treatment has finished (late effects). You may not experience any after effects at all or they may range from being mild to more serious. Always let your doctors know if you have any new symptoms or if side effects aren’t improving. Your doctor will monitor them and arrange for you to have tests, if it’s necessary.
Changes in how you look
Back to top
Sometimes head and neck cancers and treatments can cause changes in how you look. It takes time to adjust to a change in appearance. You can get advice and support from organisations such as Saving Faces, Changing Faces or Let’s Face It, which help people to cope with a changed appearance. You will also get support from the hospital staff.
Some people find it helpful to be able to talk to someone who has been in a similar situation. Saving Faces provides a telephone support line. They can put you in touch with someone who has experienced changes in their appearance after head and neck cancer and who understands the challenges involved.
If parts of the skin on your face or neck have been replaced with skin from elsewhere, the skin colour may not match the surrounding skin and the scars may be visible. It’s possible to reduce the differences of skin colour and disguise the appearance of scar tissue by using camouflage make-up.
It can be matched to all skin types and colours in both men and women. Some head and neck clinical nurse specialists,and organisations offer camouflage make-up services with advice on how to apply it.
Some types of camouflage make-up can be applied to facial prostheses to improve the colour match to the skin. This can be useful in the summer when skin tone changes. If the prosthesis needs colouring, it should be taken back to the person or organisation that supplied it.
Meeting other people
As you and the people close to you become more familiar with your changed appearance, you may want to think about seeing other people and going back to work. If you avoid social situations, you may find yourself wanting to go out less and less. The longer you leave it, the harder it may be. It’s best to start by going somewhere familiar with someone else to give you support.
Be prepared for mixed reactions. You may find that people take far less notice of you than you expected. On the other hand, some people may seem interfering and may make remarks. Small children are often openly curious and may ask why
you look different. Decide in advance how you will answer. Saying that you have had an operation should be enough. You don’t have to go into the details.
Other people will soon respond to you and not to your appearance. Coping successfully with social situations will help to build up your self-confidence, and this will increase as you gradually take up your normal activities. You can get more information about learning how to manage people’s reactions from Changing Faces or Let’s Face It. These skills aren’t difficult to learn, but do need practice. In time, you will gain the confidence to manage social situations in an effective way.
We have more information about body image which you may find helpful.
Treatment for head and neck cancers can also affect the way that you feel about yourself sexually. Your partner may also need time to adjust. Talking about how you both feel is essential to overcoming any fears or worries that you may have.
Our section on sex life after treatment for head and neck cancer has more information.