Bilateral radical neck dissection
Radical neck dissection is actually a group of surgical operations used for the removal or treatment of cancers in the head and neck area. This type of operation should only be performed when the cancerous neck mass has not spread to any other part of the body.
The type of neck dissection I had in 1990 was a bilateral neck dissection which meant that my cancer (squamous cell carcinoma) had metastasized on both sides of my neck (and in my throat) and the incision had to be made across my neck from ear to ear.
The skin was peeled back and basically I was cleaned out. Cancerous tissue, fatty tissue, many nerves, muscles, veins; all of that was removed.
I remember being rolled into the operating room and the entire team that was in there was very nice and I did feel comfortable about that. It’s not always necessarily that way.
In a matter of one second after starting the anesthesia, I was gone, until 12 hours later. I remember waking up as I was being rolled into the intensive care recovery room. My wife was there when I opened my eyes and it was so nice to see her. That’s an understatement; I can’t describe how nice it was.
The first thing I felt, physically, was what seemed to be something strapped around my neck, like a brace. All in all, my spirits were up. I suppose the pain killers also had something to do with that.
I learned that a tracheotomy had been performed allowing me to breath through an opening in my throat. I also had a feeding tube inserted up through my nose and down my esophagus to my stomach. Every so many hours they gave me a can of liquid nutrition called Osmolite.
I'm guessing this is probably standard procedure for a bilateral radical neck dissection.
It was not until a few days later that I saw myself in a mirror and saw that there was nothing around my neck, absolutely nothing, but it sure felt like it.
I laugh now, but I remember seeing what my face looked like. It was swollen up like a balloon and my neck looked like a pencil. It changed my appearance forever, but the swelling did go down and after a few months my face reached its normalcy. My neck also, but I still call myself “pencil neck”.
I believe I remained in the hospital at least two weeks, recovering. My wife says it was longer.
Long term side effects of a bilateral radical neck dissection
So what’s life like after a radical neck dissection?
It’s been 20 years now and it still feels like something is strapped around my neck, although I don’t really notice it anymore.
Movement of my head from right to left and straight up is very limited. My right shoulder droops due to the trapezius muscle being removed on that side. I can't raise my right arm very high for the same reason.
A spinal accessory nerve that controls speech, swallowing and certain movements of the head and neck was damaged.
After about 3 months the feeding tube was removed because I was able to eat again. I had to convince my doctors that I didn’t have any difficulty swallowing, although it was a little difficult. I just didn’t want that tube any more.
After about 8 years of eating I started developing pneumonia every few years. It was finally discovered that tiny food particles were going into my lungs when I swallowed and causing infection.
After too many bouts with pneumonia and significant damage to my lungs, I elected to have a feeding tube reinstalled in my stomach. That was my decision, although I was given another option.
The other option was a technique of tensing my neck muscles every time I swallowed which was supposed to close the nerve (or valve), preventing food from entering my lungs. I found it very time consuming and difficult. I opted for the feeding tube and I think I made the best decision to avoid any more pneumonia.
It took about two months for me to really adjust to not eating anymore, but I did, and have gone on about 7-8 years now.
Last Thanksgiving I cooked the turkey and all the vegetables and trimmings. I enjoyed doing it and had a great time with our family guests. I put some of it in a blender for me and into my tube it went.
Although I don’t do it as often now, I still do go with my family out to a restaurant. I just have to load up before I go in and then I can sit and talk with them all.
I figure I can make myself miserable on account of this radical neck dissection if I want to or I can live and be happy to be alive!
So, in a nutshell, that’s what it is like (for me) having a bilateral radical neck dissection and living way beyond it.
PS: Here's what I have learned.
Take your health seriously.
Life and the quality of it are limited by many of the conventional treatments, yet I’m sure there is a time when we all need to undergo some.
I’ve never suffered any ill effects from eating healthy and living a healthy lifestyle. In fact, time and time again I’ve seen improvements through healthy foods, exercise and quality whole food vitamin and mineral supplements.
Such serious and simple steps of prevention may have eliminated the need for a bilateral radical neck dissection.
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