Temporary tracheostomy for head and neck cancer

A temporary tracheostomy is an opening in the windpipe that may need to be made during mouth or throat surgery, or before radiotherapy to help you breathe.

A temporary tracheostomy is sometimes done to make it easier to breathe after certain operations or before radiotherapy for head and neck cancer.

If you are likely to need this your doctor will explain it to you before your operation or radiotherapy treatment.

Surgery and radiotherapy to the mouth or throat can cause temporary swelling around the throat. This can narrow the airway and make it difficult for you to breathe. If your treatment is likely to cause this problem, the surgeon creates a small opening into the windpipe for you to breathe through. This is called a tracheostomy or stoma.

The opening is made in the lower part of the front of the neck. It is held open by a small plastic tube that is a few centimetres long. When the swelling from treatment goes down and you can breathe easily, the tube is taken out. The opening will then be left to heal over naturally.

Position of a tracheostomy tube


A tracheostomy tube

If you have a tracheostomy, you cannot usually speak with the tube in place. But you can use a pen and paper, or a mobile phone, laptop or tablet to communicate with other people.

Your specialist nurse or speech and language therapist (SLT) will explain this to you before your treatment.