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Changes to your appearance after treatment for salivary gland cancer

Men and women discussing salivary gland cancer

This page tells you about possible changes to your appearance after treatment for salivary gland cancer. There is information about

 

A quick guide to what’s on this page

Changes to your appearance after treatment for salivary gland cancer

Surgery that involves your jaw, face or mouth may change the way you look. But modern techniques and reconstructive surgery are much better than in the past. So you are less likely to have to deal with a lot of scarring, even with very big operations. Your surgeons will do all they can to position any scars in the creases you already have on your face. If you need to have bones removed from your face, your surgeon can often rebuild them so that they look normal from the outside.

Rarely people have a permanent weakness of the nerve that controls the movement of their face on the side they have had surgery. It can mean your facial expression doesn’t change in the same way as it did on that side of your face.

How you look is an important part of your self esteem. It can be very hard to accept sudden changes in your looks that you are not happy with. There are several things that may help you cope with changes in your looks including

  • Knowing what to expect
  • Speaking to someone who has been through something similar
  • Doing things in your own time
  • Getting help with dealing with other people

Often the people closest to you can you give you the best support. But there are also many other people including specialist nurses, doctors and specialist organisations who help people cope with changes in physical appearance.

 

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Possible changes in how you look

Surgery that involves your jaw, face or mouth may change the way you look. But modern techniques and reconstructive surgery are much better than in the past. So you are less likely to have to deal with a lot of scarring, even with very big operations.

Your surgeons will do all they can to position any scars in the creases you already have on your face. With time many scars fade and become hard to see. You may still be very aware of them but other people may not even notice. If you need to have bones removed from your face, your surgeon can often rebuild (reconstruct) them so that your face looks normal from the outside. Your surgeon will use bone grafts from other parts of your body to replace the facial bones.

Rarely people have a permanent weakness of the nerve that controls the movement of their face on the side they have had surgery. This nerve controls the closing of your eye, wrinkling of your nose and moving your lips. It can mean your facial expression doesn’t change in the same way as it did on that side of your face.

 

How surgery may affect your self esteem

How you look is an important part of your self esteem. It can be very hard to accept sudden changes in your looks that you are not happy with. It is not unusual for people who have had surgery to their face to feel very angry, confused and upset for some time after their operation. You may feel worried about how your friends and family see you. You may worry about being physically attractive to your partner.

Going back to work, socialising and meeting new people can all be more of a struggle if you are trying to cope with changes in your appearance. If you have children you may worry about how their friends will see you and if that will affect your children. Many people worry about these things. The important thing to remember is that those closest to you will not think of you any differently as a person. They will want to support you as much as they can, so let them know how you are feeling. Talking to them about how you feel can help you to feel less isolated, which in turn can reduce feelings of sadness or depression.

 

Things you can do to help you cope

There are several things that may help you cope with changes in your looks

Know what to expect

Knowing what to expect during your treatment and recovery can really help, even if you don’t think you want to know. Ask your surgeon to be honest about what they are going to do and how you will look afterwards. You are likely to be swollen and sore immediately after your surgery. Remember this is temporary.

Speak to someone who has been through something similar

Some people find it helpful to speak to someone who has been through a similar experience. If you would like to do this, speak to your specialist or nurse. They may be able to arrange for you to meet another patient who has had similar treatment in the past.

Do things in your own time

Remember, do things in your own time. Some people avoid looking at themselves for a while after surgery. You are likely to be a bit swollen and numb at first and this can take a few weeks to settle down. You are also likely to have stitches. So how you look in the first few days is not how you will look in the long term. You may want to have someone with you to support you when you first look in the mirror.

Dealing with other people

Other people may not know what to say when they first see you. They won’t want to say anything that is likely to upset you. It is often easier to bring up the subject yourself and let them know how you feel about things. It is a good idea to look at yourself regularly in the mirror to help you come to terms with any change. It will also help you feel less worried about how other people see you.

When you first go out in public, go with someone you trust and feel comfortable with. Be prepared for different reactions. Some people may be shocked by any change in your appearance. Others will be at ease and make you feel comfortable very quickly. It is very difficult to predict how people will react. Some will be curious to know what has happened. Remember you are the one in control and it is up to you how much you tell people.

Often the best support you can get is from the people you are closest to. Sometimes people don’t want to share their feelings because they are worried that they will upset others. But you may be surprised by how much it can help.

If you are having problems with your intimate and sexual relationships because you feel that you are no longer attractive, try to talk to your partner about how you are feeling. There is more about this in the section on changes in your sex life.

 

Getting help and support

Not everyone feels comfortable asking for outside help and support, but many people find it very useful. There are a number of organisations and support groups that help people cope with changes in physical appearance. These include

  • Changing Faces – an organisation that helps people cope with disfigurements affecting the face
  • Let’s Face It – a non profit organisation that links people to resources that can help them cope better with facial disfigurements
  • Mouth Cancer Foundation – offers an online support group and telephone support to patients and families dealing with mouth cancer

If you would like to talk to someone outside your own friends and family, look in our coping emotionally section for counselling organisations. There is more about what counselling is in our main coping with cancer section.

Our salivary gland cancer reading list has details of books and booklets on talking about cancer, some of which are free.

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Updated: 1 July 2014