Prostheses (pross-THEE-sees) are man-made substitutes for missing body parts. (“Prostheses” refers to more than one; just one is called a prosthesis, pronounced pross-THEE-sis.) Sometimes, parts of the body must be removed if they contain cancer that could grow and spread. Prostheses are used to help a person look as though the body part had never been removed, and to help the person 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 implanted during surgery. People with cancer may need prostheses for the breasts, legs, or testicles, or an implant for the penis. Wigs used to cover the short-term hair loss that happens with some kinds of chemo can be thought of as prostheses, too.
What the patient can do
- Before surgery, ask your cancer team about prostheses.
- Find out if you might need a prosthesis. If so, ask if it can be placed or implanted during surgery.
- Make sure that you get a prescription for the prosthesis, because it may be covered by health insurance (this includes wigs).
- Wear a breast form (that fits into your bra).
- Small prostheses (“equalizers”) are available for women who have had just part of a breast removed.
- Nipple prostheses can be added during surgery when the nipple can’t be saved. External nipple prostheses are also sold to cover flat or missing nipples.
- External prostheses are sold in surgical supply stores, lingerie shops, and in the lingerie departments of many department stores. Call before you go to make sure that a professional fitter will be there.
- Wear a form-fitting top when you shop for a prosthesis, so that you can better see how it looks when you move.
- Have your partner or a good friend go with you.
- Try many different types. Prostheses vary in shape, weight, and consistency. You can also find custom-made forms if needed.
- Shop around to find the best fit and the right price.
- Prostheses may feel heavy, but they should stay in place when you move and feel comfortable. They should also look like your natural shape and feel a lot like your other breast when you touch them.
- Ask if the prosthesis absorbs sweat, and find out how to clean and care for it.
Leg or limb prostheses
- Before surgery, ask about your options, including when and how your prosthesis will be fitted.
- Often, a temporary leg prosthesis is fitted during the first surgery. Put your weight on it as advised by your medical team or physical therapist. The permanent prosthesis can be fitted after you are stronger.
- Limbs that help balance your appearance (but don’t actually work) can be used if you can’t use a permanent working prosthesis.
- Ask questions about how to care for the surgical site and the prosthesis. If you’re uncomfortable, or have redness or blisters, talk with your cancer team. If the prosthesis needs to be adjusted, take it back to be fixed. Don’t try to do it yourself.
- A testicle-shaped form can be put in the scrotum during surgery or at a later date.
- Not all men want or feel that they need a testicular prosthesis. Discuss the possibility of a prosthesis with your partner.
- Before surgery, talk to your cancer team about whether you want testicular prostheses.
- See Sexuality for the Man With Cancer for more information.
- Penile implants or prostheses are placed 6 to 12 months after surgery.
- Different types are available. Discuss options and what type is best for you with your partner and with your cancer team. See Sexuality for the Man With Cancer for more information.
Call the cancer team if the patient:
- Develops redness, swelling, pain, pus, or drainage at the prosthesis site
Fauci AS, Braunwald E, Kasper DL, et al (Eds). Harrison’s Principles of Internal Medicine, 17th ed. New York: McGraw-Hill Medical, 2008.
Camp-Sorrell D, Hawkins RA. Clinical Manual for the Oncology Advanced Practice Nurse, Second Ed. Pittsburgh: Oncology Nursing Society, 2006.
Cope DG, Reb AM. An Evidence-Based Approach to the Treatment and Care of the Older Adult with Cancer. Pittsburgh: Oncology Nursing Society, 2006.
Houts PS, Bucher JA. Caregiving, Revised ed. Atlanta: American Cancer Society, 2003.
Kaplan M. Understanding and Managing Oncologic Emergencies: A Resource for Nurses. Pittsburgh: Oncology Nursing Society, 2006.
Kuebler KK, Berry PH, Heidrich DE. End-of-Life Care: Clinical Practice Guidelines. Philadelphia: W.B. Saunders Co. 2002.
National Comprehensive Cancer Network. Palliative Care. Version 1.2015. Accessed at www.nccn.org/professionals/physician_gls/pdf/palliative.pdf on March 19, 2015.
Oncology Nursing Society. Cancer Symptoms. Accessed at www.cancersymptoms.org on April 3, 2013.
Ripamonti C, Bruera E. Gastrointestinal Symptoms in Advanced Cancer Patients. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002.
Varricchio CG. A Cancer Source Book for Nurses, 8th ed. Sudbury, MA: Jones and Bartlett, 2004.
Yarbro CH, Frogge MH, Goodman M. Cancer Symptom Management, 3rd ed. Sudbury, MA: Jones and Bartlett, 2004.
Last Medical Review: June 8, 2015 Last Revised: February 15, 2017