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Realistic Prosthetics Take Fear Out of Facial Cancer Surgeries

Read Time: 3 minutes

Paul Tanner matching an ear prosthetic to a patient's real ear

Your face is more than a collection of features. Faces create expressions, help us speak, define what we look like, and can show the outward appearance of who we are.

Certain cancers such as melanomas, sarcomas, and head and neck tumors can appear on or near a patient’s face. Surgery to remove tumors in these areas can be very complex, and the surgeons at Huntsman Cancer Institute (HCI) at University of Utah Health perform the largest number of these sophisticated procedures in the region.

There are times surgeons have to remove part of the face, such as a nose or an ear, in order to save a life. For these patients, HCI’s care team works not only to provide a cure but also to provide the best outcomes possible so patients can get back to their lives.

HCI patient Kay Gilgen had his ear removed after he was diagnosed with melanoma at age 82.

"Before I even had the surgery, I asked, ‘What do I do now? Go around the rest of my life without an ear?’"

In answer to this question, Kay was referred to HCI anaplastologist Paul Tanner. Tanner makes facial prostheses — hand-sculpted and hand-painted artificial parts of the face. HCI is one of the few hospitals in the country that has an anaplastologist and prosthesis lab onsite, making it easy for patients and their care team to meet with Tanner.

John Hyngstrom, MD, HCI melanoma surgeon and University of Utah associate professor of surgery, says, "It is very unique to have a resource like facial prostheses right on site. Paul is very accessible. He can meet with patients to show them several before-and-after examples and explain the whole process. I have seen how working with Paul can turn what may feel like a scary operation into something much more manageable."

Tanner works alongside the patient and their surgeon to explain all options and help decide the best plan going forward. "We work as a team — me, my patients, their surgeon, and other care professionals. Our roles are completely different, but our goal is to help the patient feel like they can move on with life after cancer."

An ear, eye, or nose can be created in any color and shape to look like it belongs to the patient.

"I spend many hours, many days, on each prosthesis," says Tanner. "If I bring it to the patient and it doesn’t look right, I start over. Every little detail is painted into the prosthesis to match the patient’s skin and features. Your ear, your nose, your eye — they’re as unique as your fingerprint."

Patients can live their lives without having to worry about their prosthesis coming off while swimming, exercising, or sleeping.

"I wore my ear for a whole week while I was in Hawaii. I was concerned it may come loose, but it stuck right there," Kay says.

Tanner says the most gratifying thing to him after helping a patient "is for them to be able to go out to the store or restaurant after getting their prosthesis and not have people staring at them — to have them feel whole again."

Kay would agree.

"You can’t tell I have an artificial ear unless you look really close," he says. "Getting a prosthesis makes you look like yourself again."

Cancer touches all of us.