Recovery after surgery

Pain

You may have some pain or discomfort for a few days or weeks after your operation. Your doctor or nurse will explain how to control it. It’s important to let the staff caring for you know if you’re still in pain. If the drugs aren’t relieving your pain, the dose can be increased or the painkillers can be changed.

Changes in sensation (numbness)

Surgery may affect the sensation in your mouth, face, neck or shoulders, and some areas may feel numb. This can happen if nerves are bruised during the operation. It may take several months for nerves to heal and for normal sensation to come back.

If you have an external scar after the operation, it’s common for the skin around the area to feel numb. It may take several months for normal sensation to return.

Sometimes, if a cancer is growing very close to a nerve, the only way to remove all of the cancer is by cutting the nerve. If this happens, the changes in sensation can be permanent.

Speech

Some operations to the mouth and throat can affect the way you speak. The throat, nose, mouth, tongue, teeth, lips and soft palate are all involved in producing speech. Any operation that changes one of these parts of the head and neck may affect your speech and/or voice.

For some people this is hardly noticeable, but for others, speech and/or voice may be temporarily or permanently altered. A speech and language therapist will be able to help you adapt to any changes.

It was a case of learning to use the new tongue. The main thing was speech therapy. I still had feeling in the tip of my tongue and that made things a lot easier. It still took time though.

Alison

Swallowing

When you’re ready to start taking fluids and food by mouth, you’ll see a speech and language therapist. If chewing or swallowing is difficult, they will advise you about the safest and easiest types of food to have. They will also teach you mouth and jaw exercises that will improve your swallowing. We have more information about help with swallowing.

Difficulty opening your mouth due to a stiff jaw (trismus)

Some operations to the back of the mouth and throat can lead to a stiff jaw. This is usually temporary and you will be given exercises to help prevent this from becoming a permanent problem.

Changes to your appearance

Before your operation your surgeons and specialist nurse can talk to you about the possible changes in your appearance. It’s important to have a good idea of what to expect.

Operations in the mouth or throat can often cause swelling. So your face and neck may look very swollen immediately after the operation. This will gradually get better over a few months.

Whenever possible, your surgeon will plan the operation so that if you have scars they will be in less noticeable places, such as in skin creases on your face or a fold in your neck. Scars are usually red or dark to begin with, but gradually fade over time.

It can take some time to adjust to changes in how you look and it’s important to know that support is available. We have more information about coping with changes in your appearance.

Preparing to go home

Before you leave hospital, you’ll be given an appointment for a check-up or to plan further treatment, such as radiotherapy. You’ll also be given appointments if you need to see any other members of the team, such as the speech and language therapist, specialist nurse or dietitian.

If it’s needed, the ward nurses can arrange for district nurses to visit you at home and check that you’re managing with any wounds and dressings.

Back to Surgery explained

Who might I meet?

A team of specialists will plan your surgery. This will include a surgeon who specialises in your type of cancer.