Life after tongue cancer surgery can be challenging at first. People may experience changes in their ability to speak, eat, and drink. Tiredness is also common after surgery, and a person must gradually return to their previous activity level over time.

After the surgery, a person may require support from loved ones for daily activities, such as eating and drinking. Additionally, doctors, nurses, dietitians, and physiotherapists may all play a role in a person’s recovery.

If someone experiences complications or issues following the procedure, they should contact their doctor right away.

This article discusses what to expect after tongue cancer surgery. It looks at recovery, talking, eating, and drinking after surgery, potential complications, and available support.

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Tongue cancer surgery has immediate effects on a person’s quality of life. However, with proper support, it is possible for a person to return to their typical activities. This can include support from family, friends, and medical professionals.

Tongue cancer surgery affects a person’s ability to eat, drink, and talk. It may also change their appearance, which can affect other aspects, such as their social life.

A 12-month prospective study from 2022 found that people who underwent tongue cancer surgery had a reduced quality of life. This was especially true within the first month after the procedure. However, the study found that participants fully regained their quality of life one year after the surgery.

Everyone’s experience after tongue cancer surgery will be different. However, recovery can be challenging due to the physical impact it has on a person’s mouth.

It is normal for someone to feel very tired for up to a few months after the surgery. Because of this, it can help for a person to increase their activity each day, such as by:

  • sitting for a shorter amount of time every day
  • walking around the home more every day
  • gradually increasing indoor activity before eventually walking outside

A person’s physical capabilities will depend on their pre-surgery fitness levels and any post-surgery complications.

A dietitian may be able to provide recommendations about what to eat after surgery. However, there may be some trial and error to determine what works best for each person’s situation.

After tongue cancer surgery, a person will usually wake up in the hospital’s recovery unit. Doctors will then transfer them back to the ward.

Depending on the procedure, some people may need more intensive monitoring and care. This may mean they start recovery in the ICU or high dependency unit before moving back to the ward after a day or so.

It is normal for a person to feel disorientated after tongue cancer surgery. Anesthetics and painkillers doctors administer during the procedure may also cause drowsiness.

After surgery, nurses typically encourage a person to get up and move around as soon as possible. This helps with recovery, but the person will need to increase their activity level gradually.

A physiotherapist can also help a person with their breathing and work towards resuming their normal activities.

It is normal for people to have difficulty with speech after an operation to remove tongue cancer. As a result, a person might experience feelings of frustration and a lack of control.

Nurses and doctors understand that difficult feelings can arise after tongue cancer surgery. Because of this, hospitals typically provide a way for a person to request the attention of staff, when needed. For instance, they may place a call bell within close reach.

Medical professionals may also provide a way for a person to write or type anything they want to say. Examples include a pen and paper or a mobile device or tablet.

A person’s ability to talk following tongue cancer surgery can depend on the extent of the procedure. This can include factors such as how much of the tongue was removed and what kind of reconstruction was needed.

A person should discuss possible tongue cancer surgery outcomes with their healthcare professional.

The swelling and pain that occur after tongue cancer surgery can affect a person’s ability to eat and swallow. This can be temporary or more permanent, depending on how much of the tongue is removed.

These effects can also lead a person to experience related challenges, such as:

In some cases, a dietitian may recommend that a person has a feeding tube inserted. The tube may run either from the nose to the stomach (nasogastric tube) or directly into the stomach (gastronomy tube).

A feeding tube can help prevent weight loss by allowing a person to receive liquid nutrition when eating and drinking are difficult.

All types of surgery carry a risk of complications or problems. Some of these may be expected following surgery. An individual should discuss all risks and possible complications with their healthcare professional.

After tongue cancer surgery, possible issues may include:

  • changes in eating
  • speech changes
  • altered appearance
  • infection
  • blood clots
  • bleeding
  • numbness
  • swelling
  • scarring

A person should talk with their nurse or doctor as soon as they experience problems or unexpected symptoms following a tongue cancer operation.

If someone experiences any of the following, it could be a sign of a blood clot or another medical emergency:

These symptoms indicate a potential medical emergency. Call 911 immediately if someone experiences any of these symptoms.

Read more about signs of blood clots.

Having cancer and going through cancer treatment may result in depression or anxiety for some. However, everyone’s experience will be unique, and some may feel more of these effects than others.

Nonetheless, having a support network can be helpful for everyone. Examples include:

  • friends
  • family
  • a religious community
  • support groups
  • counselors

Help is also available online through sites such as the Cancer Survivors Network, provided by the American Cancer Society.

Life after tongue cancer surgery can present a range of challenges, such as difficulty eating, drinking, and talking. A person may also feel fatigue and experience pain and swelling.

Getting support after leaving the hospital can help a person gradually return to their normal activities.

People may experience reduced quality of life immediately after the procedure. However, they can expect to return to their previous quality of life within a year.

Some people may experience complications or problems after tongue cancer surgery. In these cases, they should contact their doctor immediately.