Head and Neck Cancer Rehabilitation

Head and Neck Cancer Rehabilitation

At Cancer Rehabilitation & Lymphatic Solutions, we are proud to be at the forefront of head and neck cancer rehabilitation on the Central Coast. Led by Kate Perkins, a qualified Head and Neck Lymphoedema specialist OT, our dedicated team offers a comprehensive range of services to address the unique challenges and side effects faced by individuals undergoing or recovering from head and neck cancer (HNC) treatment.

Early (acute) side effects of treatment can include:

  • Erythema – skin redness
  • Severe blistering/peeling skin
  • Oral mucositis – inflammation and ulceration of mucous membranes in the throat, mouth, and oesophagus
  • Dry/sore throat ; Dry mouth (xerostomia)
  • Difficulty swallowing (dysphagia)
  • Reduced voice projection (aphonia) – hoarseness/laryngitis
  • Loss of taste (dysgeusia)
  • Pain
  • Fatigue


Chronic and functional side effects can include:

  • Radiation fibrosis
    • reduced neck and shoulder range of movement (ROM) secondary to muscle fibrosis
    • reduced jaw range of movement (trismus), reduced jaw strength for eating
    • reduced lymphatic function causing internal and external oedema (swelling) secondary to lymph node dissection and radiation therapy
  • Radiation-induced brachial plexopathy – direct damage to nerves, disrupting nerve signal transmission for shoulder function
  • Esophageal fibrosis – Dysphagia and esophageal contractures leading to reduced swallowing function
hnc rehab

Understanding Radiation Fibrosis

One of the significant concerns in head and neck cancer treatment is the formation of radiation fibrosis. This condition develops as a result of exposure to therapeutic radiation, which can damage DNA and cells in the targeted area. The body’s attempt to repair the affected tissues triggers excessive inflammatory response, leading to the deposit of excessive amounts of collagen and other matrix proteins, leading to tissue stiffening and scarring.

As collagen accumulates, it can cause the affected tissues to become thickened and fibrotic, resulting in the development of scar tissue. This fibrosis can lead to various symptoms, including excess radiation fibrosis, lymphoedema (swelling) in the face, neck, and intra-orally, reduced neck and shoulder movement and strength, and extreme fatigue.

Pioneering Treatment Approach in Treating Head and Neck Cancer (HNC) Side Effects

Kate Perkins, co-founder with Dr Catherine Norton, of OncoLaser™ is leading the way in treating the side effects of head and neck cancer treatments using MLS® Laser in combination with hands-on techniques that can improve the quality of life for your patients.

Key Benefits of Head and Neck Cancer Rehabilitation:

Head and neck cancer rehabilitation offers numerous benefits that significantly impact the quality of life and overall recovery of patients. These benefits include:

Improved Functional Outcomes

Speech and Swallowing: Rehabilitation can help restore and improve speech and swallowing functions, which are often affected by cancer and its treatments. This can involve speech therapy, exercises, and techniques to manage dysphagia (difficulty swallowing).

Breathing: Respiratory function may be compromised due to surgery or radiation. Rehabilitation can aid in improving breathing techniques and lung capacity.

Enhanced Physical Recovery

Mobility and Strength: Physical therapy can help patients regain strength, flexibility, and range of motion, especially in the neck and shoulders, which can be restricted due to surgery or radiation.

Pain Management: Techniques such as physical therapy, massage, and exercises can alleviate pain and discomfort resulting from treatment.

Psychosocial Support

Emotional Wellbeing: Coping with cancer can be mentally and emotionally challenging. Kate Perkins and her team are here to help patients and their families during their rehab process.

Lymphoedema Management

Swelling Control: For patients experiencing lymphoedema (swelling due to lymph fluid build-up), specialised exercises, manual lymphatic drainage, and compression garments can help manage and reduce swelling. Fid out more about how Cancer rehabilitation & Lymphatic Solutions can assist with this.

Prevention of Complications

Early Detection of Recurrence or Secondary Issues: Regular monitoring and follow-up during rehabilitation can help detect any signs of cancer recurrence or secondary complications early, allowing for timely intervention.

Personalised Care Plans

Tailored Rehabilitation Programs: Kate and her team will personalise rehabilitation programs to meet the specific needs of each patient, considering their type of cancer, treatment received, and individual recovery goals.

Quality of Life Improvements

Overall Health and Wellness: By addressing the various physical, emotional, and social challenges faced by head and neck cancer patients, rehabilitation contributes to an overall improvement in the patient’s quality of life.

Head and neck cancer rehabilitation is a comprehensive approach that addresses multiple facets of recovery, focusing on improving functional abilities, managing physical and emotional well-being, and enhancing the overall quality of life for patients.

Exercise and Movement Is Key!

Head and neck cancer surgery and chemo-radiation treatment can also lead to muscle contraction and postural changes. These changes can be attributed to various factors, including the effects of surgery, radiation therapy, and muscle deconditioning during the recovery period.

Our team at Cancer Rehabilitation & Lymphatic Solutions is well-versed in managing and rehabilitating these postural changes. We employ a multifaceted approach that may include:

  • Cancer rehab exercise: Individualised exercise programs designed to improve muscle strength, flexibility, and range of motion (ROM).
  • Studies show that movement and exercise during and after cancer treatment can combat symptom of cancer related fatigue.
  • Specific jaw, neck and shoulder movements to increase lymphatic function to reduce lymphoedema symptoms. The superficial lymphatic vessels rely on the muscle pump action to help transport lymphatic fluid from the affected / at risk area.
    • We lead specific HNC rehab exercise classes at our Erina clinic


Patient Education – Manual Lymphatic Drainage (MLD) Massage

During your consultations with Kate and her team, you will receive ongoing education on how to perform self MLD massage to help minimise lymphoedema symptoms. MLD Massage is one of the hands-on treatment components performed during treatment in conjunction with the MLS® Laser.

So When Can You Start Rehabilitation Treatment?

The sooner the better!

Based on clinical evidence, it is safe to receive intra-oral and external MLS® Laser treatment to minimise the development of oral mucositis, dry mouth and loss of taste.

Early treatment using MLS® Laser delays the development of radiation fibrosis, maintaining tissue softness, and reduces the risk of developing chronic side effects of treatment for HNC.

Real Life Research

Our treatments are based on up-to-date clinical evidence, but we are also passionate about contributing to real life research as Kate and her team lead the way in post cancer care using cutting edge technology.

At Cancer Rehabilitation & Lymphatic Solutions, we are committed to providing comprehensive solutions for individuals undergoing or recovering from head and neck cancer treatment. Our team of experts, led by Kate Perkins, is dedicated to helping you regain your strength, mobility, and quality of life.