Changes in how you look after head and neck cancer treatment

Coping with physical changes

Some side effects that develop during treatment may take a long time to improve, or may sometimes become permanent. These are called long-term effects. Other effects can develop many years after treatment has finished. These are known as late effects. You may not have any long-term or late effects. If you do, they may range from being mild to being more serious.

Always let your doctors know if you have any new symptoms or if side effects are not improving. Your doctor will monitor them and arrange for you to have tests, if necessary.

Changes in your appearance

Head and neck cancer and its treatments can cause changes to the way your face looks. These changes can sometimes affect your body image. This is the picture you have in your mind of how you look, and how you think and feel about your body. Changes can also be a constant reminder of the cancer 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 get used to a change in appearance. Everyone adjusts 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 changes to their appearance. Your healthcare team can also support you.

Some people find it helpful to talk to someone who has been in a similar situation. Saving Faces has a telephone support line. It can put you in touch with someone whose appearance has changed after having a head and neck cancer and who understands the challenges.

Skin camouflage products

Parts of the skin on your face or neck may have been replaced with skin from another part of the body. The colour of the new skin may not match the surrounding skin. You may also have visible scars. Using camouflage products can help to reduce the difference in skin colour and the appearance of scars. Camouflage products can be matched to all skin types and colours.

Some head and neck clinical nurse specialists and organisations offer specialist skin camouflage services. They can give you advice on how to apply it.

Some types of skin camouflage products can be applied to facial prostheses. This can improve the colour to better match your skin tone. It can be useful in the summer when skin tone changes. If you need this, you should take the prosthesis back to the person or organisation that supplied it.

We have more information to help you cope with changes in appearance.

Meeting other people

After your treatment, you and the people close to you will start to become more familiar with your changed appearance. As this happens, you may think about seeing other people and going back to work. Avoiding social situations for a long time might make it harder to go out. It is best to start by going somewhere familiar. You may want 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. But some people may make insensitive remarks or unhelpful suggestions. Children are often openly curious and may ask why you look different. You may want to decide in advance how to answer. Saying that you have had an operation should be enough. You do not have to go into the details.

Being able to cope with social situations will help build your self-confidence. This will increase as you gradually start doing your normal activities. These skills are not difficult to learn, but do need practice. In time, you will gain the confidence to manage social situations.

You can get more information about how to manage people’s reactions from organisations such as Changing Faces or Let’s Face It.

Sexual relationships

Treatment for head and neck cancers can also affect the way you feel about yourself sexually and your ability to enjoy sex. Tiredness during and after treatment can also make you lose interest in sex. After treatment, some people may no longer enjoy kissing the way they used to.

If you have a partner, they may also need time to adjust. Talking about how you both feel is important, as you can overcome any fears or worries that you may have.

If you want to start a new relationship, it can be difficult to decide what and when to tell a new partner about your cancer.

If you are having difficulties with your sex life, talk to your GP. There might be a counsellor or psychologist in the practice. If not, your GP can tell you how to contact one. You could also talk to your hospital team or specialist nurse about which sexual health services are available locally. The College of Sexual and Relationship Therapists has a nationwide list of counsellors and therapists.

We have more information about how cancer and its treatment can affect sexuality, and what can help.

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.