Meet the team helping patients look and feel better after head and neck cancer

James Abbott in the maxillofacial prosthetics lab. Photo is taken from behind and shows him painting a dental prosthesis
James Abbott at work in the maxillofacial prosthetics lab

Published on 11 November 2021

Being told you have cancer is hard enough – but what if the tumour or treatment can affect the way you look, or your speech or ability to eat and drink?

That is the reality for many people with head and neck cancer, which is the eighth most common cancer in the UK.

Tumours in the mouth can spread to the nose or eye, as well as upwards into the soft palate, making eating or drinking almost impossible.

But a small team at the William Harvey Hospital work tirelessly to create prosthetics that will help them live a normal life.

Rachel Jenner, head maxillofacial prosthetist, works with fellow maxillofacial prosthetist James Abbott to painstakingly create artificial eyes, noses, ears and dentures.

She said: “Function is the priority for us rather than appearance, but we recognise that appearance is a huge issue for many of our patients.

“Removing head and neck cancer is major surgery and it can be quite disfiguring, which is often distressing for people after the trauma of being told they have cancer.

“We do need to wait until their skin or mouth has recovered, but there is a lot we can do to help people going forward.”

The team produce special dentures that block any holes left in the mouth after tumours have been removed, allowing people to eat and drink again.

They can create false eyes, hand-painted to match the remaining eye, and skin that is colour matched, with different prostheses for summer and winter when natural skin can change.

Rachel said: “It does require a level of artistry to create prostheses that look as realistic as possible, and it is incredibly rewarding to follow a patient’s journey and see the end result.

“We see people in clinic so we can find out what is important to them, whether that’s going back to their workplace, or being able to go out for a meal and feel confident they can eat and drink normally.

“Sometimes they raise issues we haven’t thought of, like an excess of saliva, but we always try and find a solution and we work with people for as long as they need us.”

For more information on head and neck cancer and the symptoms to look out for, visit https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/head-and-neck-cancer/