Coping with Cancer

What to Expect After Head and Neck Cancer Surgery

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By Henry Ford Health System Staff

For patients with a form of head and neck cancer, surgery to remove the tumor is frequently part of the treatment process.

It’s important for patients and their loved ones to become familiar with the surgical process and understand how it may affect them physically, as well as mentally, afterward.

Suhael Momin, M.D., an otolaryngologist (ENT) at Henry Ford Health System, talks about surgery for head and neck cancer and what patients can expect.

Q: What is the goal of surgery?

Dr. Momin: There are two major goals. The first is to get rid of the tumor (and in turn, the cancer) we’re addressing. Second, we aim to restore the patient’s function and quality of life afterward. When we remove head and neck cancer tumors, they’re often in functionally critical areas like the tongue or voice box, and our goal is to restore the way patients look and how they are able to perform actions necessary for daily life, such as speaking and swallowing, after their surgery.

Q: What are some of the side effects post-surgery patients may experience?

Dr. Momin: The side effects truly depend on the surgery and where the tumor is located. Certain surgeries, like the removal of a thyroid gland, for example, are pretty standardized and typically come with low risk of side effects. Others pose greater risk. Some of the side effects patients may experience include:

  • Difficulty swallowing and eating
  • Aspiration (food/drink going into the windpipe when trying to swallow)
  • Change in voice, difficulty with speech articulation
  • Numbness

With any cancer diagnosis, people often have a lot of anxiety and questions regarding mortality, how life may change for you and your family, etc. With head and neck cancer, there may be another layer of anxiety, because post-treatment, the way you interact with the world could permanently change. In our department, we have a psychologist who specializes specifically in the care of head and neck cancer patients to support them through the process.

Related Topic: Overcoming Anxiety as a Cancer Survivor

Q: What does the post-surgery recovery process look like?

Dr. Momin: Again, recovery depends on the type of cancer and what the surgical process consisted of. For patients with large tumors who need reconstruction, they may go through a temporary period of using a tracheostomy tube to help them breathe and a feeding tube for nutrition. If a patient had part of the tongue, throat or voice box removed, they may have to go through therapy to re-train their bodies to swallow again, talk again or improve speech clarity. Most of our patients work with a speech pathologist to strengthen the parts of the body responsible for these functions.

If part of a patient’s surgery included reconstruction, we may have taken tissue from the arms or legs to remedy any deformities. If so, patients may work with physical therapists to strengthen the affected parts of the body.

Q: Can you talk more about the reconstruction process?

Dr. Momin: When dealing with the head and neck, many patients are concerned about the way their appearance may change, whether they’ll be able to swallow normally, what their voice will sound like, etc. Reconstructive surgery is performed to help patients heal faster and more safely, as well as restore appearance and critical functions such as speech and swallowing. This frequently involves borrowing tissue from other parts of the body and transplanting them to the head and neck.

In our department, we handle the removal of the tumor and the reconstruction, so that it is all done in one surgery. Our goal is to take care of everything at once, so that you can recover as quickly as possible.

For more information on the Henry Ford Cancer Institute’s head and neck cancer treatment, as well as cancer support services, visit henryford.com/cancer.

Dr. Suhael Momin is an otolaryngologist who sees patients at Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit and Henry Ford Medical Center – Lakeside in Sterling Heights.

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