Recovering from surgery for head and neck cancer
Find out more about coping with physical changes as you recover from surgery.
It can take time to recover from surgery for head and neck cancer . Depending on the type of operation you have, you might have physical changes that affect your head or neck.
Some changes will improve as your body recovers. Some may be long term or permanent changes. Your surgeon will explain what to expect and what support is available.
You may have some pain or discomfort for a few days or weeks after your operation. Your doctor or nurse will explain how to manage this. It is important to let the staff caring for you know if you are still in pain. If the painkillers are not relieving your pain, they may be able to increase the dose or change the painkillers.
Surgery may affect the sensation or feeling in your mouth, face, neck or shoulders. Some areas may feel numb. This can happen if nerves are bruised during the operation. It may take several months for the nerves to heal and for normal sensation to come back.
If you have a scar on the surface of your skin after the operation, it is common for the skin around the area to feel numb. It may take several months for normal sensation to come back.
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.
We have more information about numbness and changes in sensation.
Some operations to the mouth and throat can affect the way you speak. The throat, nose, mouth, tongue, teeth, lips, soft palate and voice box are all involved in producing speech. Any operation that changes one of these parts of the head and neck may affect your speech or voice, or both.
For some people, this is hardly noticeable. But for others, their speech or voice is temporarily or permanently changed. A speech and language therapist (SLT) can help you adapt to any changes, and help improve your communication.
We have more information about managing changes to speech and voice.
When you are ready to start taking fluids and food by mouth, you will see a speech and language therapist (SLT). If chewing or swallowing is difficult, they will give you advice on foods that are easy to swallow. You may cough when you eat and drink. This can sometimes be sign that food is going down the wrong way (into the airway). Your SLT can teach you exercises to help with swallowing and stop this from happening.
We have more information about coping with swallowing problems.
Before your operation, your surgeons and specialist nurse can talk to you about the possible changes in your appearance. It is important to have a good idea of what to expect.
Operations that are done in the mouth or throat can often cause swelling, so your face and neck may look very swollen immediately after the operation. This slowly gets better over a few months.
Wherever possible, your surgeon plans the operation so that if you have scars, they are in less noticeable places. For example, they could be in skin creases on your face or a fold in your neck. Scars are usually red or dark to begin with, but slowly fade over time.
It can take some time to adjust to changes in how you look. It is important to know that support is available.
We have more information about coping with changes in appearance.
Below is a sample of the sources used in our head and neck cancer information. If you would like more information about the sources we use, please contact us at email@example.com
British Association of Head and Neck Oncologists. Head and Neck Cancer: United Kingdom National Multidisciplinary Guidelines. 2016. Available from: https://www.bahno.org.uk/_userfiles/pages/files/ukheadandcancerguidelines2016.pdf (accessed September 2018).
Brockstein BE, Stenson KM, Song S. Overview of treatment for head and neck cancer. UpToDate https://www.uptodate.com/contents/overview-of-treatment-for-head-and-neck-cancer (accessed Spetember 2018).
National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE). Cancer of the upper aerodigestive tract: assessment and management in people aged 16 and over. 2016. Available from: https://www.nice.org.uk/guidance/ng36 (accessed September 2018).
This information has been written, revised and edited by Macmillan Cancer Support’s Cancer Information Development team. It has been reviewed by expert medical and health professionals and people living with cancer. It has been approved by Senior Medical Editor, Dr Chris Alcock, Consultant Clinical Oncologist.
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