Disfigurement and amputation

Disfigurement and amputations can be a result of many cancer surgeries, especially those affecting the head and neck or the limbs.

Disfigurements resulting from head and neck cancers can have an extreme impact on a person’s life. In fact, head and neck cancer survivors have a higher suicide rate than most cancer survivors of other types, indicating the need for mental health support for this group. [1]

The first line of treatment for head and neck cancers is surgery, which can cause significant damage or complete removal of facial structures. If this surgery is followed by radiation treatment, there may be burns and sores on the face area. For head and neck cancer survivors, there will often be visible evidence of their illness and its treatment on their faces. Many survivors have difficulty eating, drinking, or speaking with permanent facial disfigurement. [2]

These treatments can have a great impact on your self-esteem and body image and the way you feel and think about yourself, and can cause considerable distress. You may be afraid to go out, afraid of rejection or feel angry or upset even if the effects of treatment may not show as much as you think. Some of the challenges associated with these therapies can be:

  • Dry mouth, which can make it difficult to drink or eat and can also cause cavities and sores in your mouth.
  • Difficulty swallowing may occur if the structures of your mouth are compromised, and you may need a speech-language pathologist to help you improve function.
  • If you have difficulty chewing or swallowing regular food, you may not get enough nourishment. A feeding tube inserted into the abdominal wall can provide nutritional food directly into the stomach.

Tumours in the limbs can sometimes be removed completely. However, there are cases in which this is not possible, and cancer treatment will result in amputation. Amputations heal quite quickly compared to reconstructions, and yet they have a great impact on self-esteem and body image. They also have consequences in terms of mobility and function.

One amputee offered up helpful tips to get through a limb amputation: [3]

  • Build the muscles you’ll need to compensate for your amputation before you undergo surgery, as they will atrophy a bit during recovery.
  • Mentally prepare yourself – when you wake up after surgery, you’re immediately facing a new life.
  • Remind yourself that you can do it, but also why you’re doing it – to survive your cancer.
  • Fight phantom pain by applying pressure to the stump to convince your brain that that’s all that is left.
  • Choose your prosthetist carefully, since this will be a crucial relationship – this person will be your best advocate in your journey of care and recovery.
  • Join a support group – people with similar experiences can understand the loss, fear, and challenges that you are facing.
  • Connect with a counselor – mental rehabilitation is just as important as physical rehabilitation, and it’s important to seek help when you need it.
  • Have patience and perseverance – you’ll probably have to learn how to do many familiar tasks all over again, but it is important to persist and ask for help when needed.
  • Find positivity in your situation – this can help people around you feel more comfortable while also making you feel better.

Amputees will probably need physiotherapy and prostheses that can be fitted to the stump. In most cases, with rehabilitation and support, patients will be able to go back to a normal life after an amputation. [4]


[1] https://news.stlpublicradio.org/post/debt-disfigurement-place-survivors-these-types-cancer-higher-risk-suicide

[2] https://headandneckcancerguide.org/adults/the-emotional-journey/living-with-a-disfigurement/

[3] https://blog.dana-farber.org/insight/2017/02/meeting-two-challenges-tips-for-dealing-with-a-cancer-related-amputation/

[4] http://www.cancer.ca/en/cancer-information/cancer-type/bone/treatment/surgery/