Changes in how you look

Head and neck cancer and its treatments can cause changes to your appearance. The changes can sometimes affect your body image. This is the picture you have in your mind of how you look (your size, shape and form), and how you feel about your body. Changes can also be a constant reminder of your cancer diagnosis and treatment.

Thoughts and feelings about your body image can be difficult to deal with. You may find that you go through many different emotions.

It takes time to adjust to a change in appearance. There’s no set time or method for this process of adapting. Everyone does it at their own pace and in their own way. For some people it may take weeks, for others it may take months or even years. This experience will be unique to you, but you may meet other people who have similar thoughts and feelings.

You can get advice and support from organisations such as Changing Faces, Let’s Face It or Saving Faces which help people to cope with a changed appearance. You will also get support from the hospital staff.

Some people find it helpful to talk to someone who has been in a similar situation. Saving Faces provides a telephone support line. It 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.

Camouflage make-up

If parts of the skin on your face or neck have been replaced with skin from another part of the body, the skin colour may not match the surrounding skin. You may also have visible scars. 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 you have a prosthesis that needs colouring, you should take it 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 that you want 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 and to take someone with you for 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.

Sexual relationships

Treatment for head and neck cancers can also affect the way that you feel about yourself sexually. If you have a partner, they may also need time to adjust. Talking about how you both feel is essential to overcoming any fears or worries that you may have.

Back to Beginning to recover from head and neck cancer treatment

Wellbeing and recovery

Looking after yourself by eating well, not smoking, cutting back on alcohol and being physically active can help your recovery.