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A prosthesis is a man-made substitute for a missing body part (just one is called a prosthesis and is also often called a prosthetic; the plural is prostheses).
Sometimes, a part of the body must be removed if cancer is found there. Sometimes getting treatment might result in hair loss. Either way, a prosthesis can be used to help with appearance after surgery or other treatment for cancer. It can help a person look as though the body part had never been removed or that hair loss hasn't happened, and to help the person feel better and function as naturally as possible.
There are many different types of prostheses. Some are worn on the outside of the body and can be put on and taken off (external prostheses), and others are inserted during surgery (implants). For example, people with cancer may need a prosthesis due to loss of a breast, eye, leg, or arm. An implant may be used in the penis, or in a breast, testicle, or bone. If the larynx has been affected by cancer, an electronic voice device may be needed. Wigs for hair loss from some kinds of chemo are considered prostheses, too.
Radiation therapy to the head and certain chemotherapy drugs damage hair follicles, making hair fall out.
Whether a breast prosthesis or implant is used depends on the type of breast surgery being done to remove the cancer, the need for other cancer treatments, risk and benefit for the patient's situation, along with their lifestyle and preferences.
An external breast prostheses (or breast form) is fitted for size and comfort and worn on the outside of the body where the breast, or part of it, has been removed. Here are some tips when choosing and getting fitted for a breast prosthesis.
Some patients who have had part or all of a breast removed due to cancer may prefer an implant instead of a prosthesis. An implant is placed during breast reconstruction surgery.
Physical and activity limits are the most significant changes to deal with after removal of part or all of a limb (amputation). The type of prosthesis that might be needed after surgery depends on the type, stage, and location of the cancer, any additional treatment that might be needed, and the patient's lifestyle and preferences.
A testicular implant may be inserted when, or after, surgery to remove a testicle is done. Studies show that having counseling along with a discussion about risks and benefits before having an implant are helpful in making a decision to get one and being satisfied with the decision after the procedure.
Using a penile prosthesis or getting a penile implant may be explored by some patients after surgery for penile or prostate cancer, or if other cancers or cancer treatments affect the ability to have an erection.
When the larynx (voice box) is removed during cancer surgery (laryngectomy), the voice is lost. After surgery, patients might decide to have a voice (laryngeal) prosthesis placed or may use an electronic voice device to help restore speech.
TEP is the procedure used to place a laryngeal prosthesis. This procedure creates a connection between the windpipe and esophagus through a small hole at the stoma site. A small one-way valve put into this hole makes you able to force air from your lungs into your mouth.
If you cannot have a TEP for medical reasons, or while you are learning to use your TEP voice, you may use an electrical device to produce a mechanical voice. The battery-operated device is placed at the corner of your mouth or against the skin of your neck. When you press a button on the device, it makes a vibrating sound.
Read more about these options in Living as a Laryngeal or Hypopharyngeal Cancer Survivor.
Cancers of the head and neck area include those that affect the face and facial features, also called the maxillofacial area. Examples are cancers of the sinuses (sinus cavity), nose (nasal cavity), mouth (oral cavity), cheek, and jaw (mandible). They usually require surgery to remove the tumor and sometimes the area surrounding it. Surgery can result in major changes to appearance and function of the area affected. Sometimes reconstructive procedures can be done to help with appearance. And in some cases, a prosthesis or implant might be offered, can help a patient look and feel better, and certain types can help restore function. For example, a prosthesis or implant might be offered to help with things like chewing, swallowing, smell, or speech.
Loss of an eye is called enucleation. While sometimes only a part of an eye needs to be removed, removal of the entire eyeball is often needed for people with eye (ocular) cancer, including ocular melanoma, ocular lymphoma, and retinoblastoma. In these cases, an artificial eye (ocular prosthesis or implant) might be offered.
Some prostheses can be expensive. The cost for a prosthesis is often covered in different ways and in different amounts. Cost depends on the type of prosthesis and why it's recommended or needed. Sometimes coverage depends on if the prosthesis is cosmetic (used mostly for looks) or whether it helps replace a function that's been lost (functional use). The type of insurance coverage you have makes a difference too.
Most insurances, including Medicare, help pay for certain types of prostheses. But, some prostheses may have limited coverage, some may not be considered "medically necessary," or the procedure to implant them might be considered elective. It's a good idea to check with your insurance company first to find out if getting a prosthesis is covered. You can ask your health care team to help. Visit healthcare.gov for more information about what certain plans cover. If you're on Medicaid, check with your state's Medicaid office about coverage.
Sometimes rehabilitation (rehab) or therapy is recommended for people with cancer who are learning to live with a prosthesis. Rehab and therapy can improve or regain function, help people adjust to role changes at work and at home, and improve quality of life. Examples are physical therapy, occupational therapy, or speech therapy.
Cancer rehabilitation (rehab) is specialty care that can be used at any time during a person's cancer journey. In cases when prostheses are needed, trained rehab professionals can help treat physical and functional deficits. Cancer rehab after surgery or treatment can also help improve a patient's well-being and can help them when they might have problems doing certain daily activities. When a patient is referred for cancer rehab, a personal plan of care is developed based on the problem being treated and the goals and preferences of the patient. Ask your doctor if cancer rehab or a certain type of therapy might be a good option for you.
The American Cancer Society medical and editorial content team
Our team is made up of doctors and oncology certified nurses with deep knowledge of cancer care as well as journalists, editors, and translators with extensive experience in medical writing.
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Last Revised: February 1, 2020
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