Treatment for head and neck cancer sometimes affects the lymph nodes and the flow of lymph fluid. Lymph nodes may need to be removed in a neck dissection or they could be damaged by radiation therapy, and this may prevent lymph fluid from draining properly. The fluid can build up and cause swelling in the neck, face and throat. This is known as lymphoedema. It can be temporary or permanent and may change your appearance.
For more on this call Cancer Council 13 11 20, or see Lymphoedema.
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People who have had surgery followed by radiation therapy to the neck are more at risk, especially if both sides of the neck are treated. You are also more likely to develop lymphoedema if a lot of lymph nodes were removed.
Symptoms of lymphoedema are easier to manage if the condition is treated early. The main signs of lymphoedema include swelling, redness and skin warmth, which may come and go. Sometimes the swelling develops internally and is hard to see but the area may feel different (e.g. mild tingling). It is important to look out for these signs and to visit your doctor if they appear.
Sometimes the swelling and other signs of lymphoedema can take months or years to develop, although some people who are at risk never develop the condition.
Some hospitals have specialist physiotherapists and occupational therapists who can teach you simple exercises to reduce your risk of developing lymphoedema, or show you ways to manage it if you have it already. There are also outpatient and private lymphoedema practitioners who can help with prevention and offer treatments such as lymphatic drainage massage, exercises, low-level laser therapy, skin care and compression garments, if needed.
For more on this, see our general section on Lymphoedema.
To find a lymphoedema practitioner, visit the Australasian Lymphology Association.
Podcasts for people affected by cancer
A/Prof Richard Gallagher, Head and Neck Surgeon, Director of Cancer Services and Head and Neck Cancer Services, St Vincent’s Health Network, NSW; Dr Sophie Beaumont, Head of Dental Oncology, Dental Practitioner, Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre, VIC; Dr Bena Brown, Speech Pathologist, Princess Alexandra Hospital, and Senior Research Fellow, Menzies School of Health Research, QLD; Dr Teresa Brown, Assistant Director, Nutrition and Dietetics, Royal Brisbane and Women’s Hospital, QLD; Lisa Castle-Burns, Head and Neck Cancer Specialist Nurse, Canberra Region Cancer Centre, The Canberra Hospital, ACT; A/Prof Ben Chua, Radiation Oncologist, Royal Brisbane and Women’s Hospital, GenesisCare Rockhampton and Brisbane, QLD; Elaine Cook, 13 11 20 Consultant, Cancer Council Victoria; Dr Andrew Foreman, Specialist Ear, Nose and Throat Surgeon, Royal Adelaide Hospital, SA; Tony Houey, Consumer; Dr Annette Lim, Medical Oncologist and Clinician Researcher – Head and Neck and Non-melanoma Skin Cancer, Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre and The University of Melbourne, VIC; Paula Macleod, Head, Neck and Thyroid Cancer Nurse Coordinator, Northern Sydney Cancer Centre, Royal North Shore Hospital, NSW; Dr Aoife McGarvey, Physiotherapist and Accredited Lymphoedema Practitioner, Physio Living, Newcastle, NSW; Rick Pointon, Consumer; Teresa Simpson Senior Clinician, Psycho-Oncology Social Work Service, Cancer Therapy Centre, Liverpool Hospital, NSW.
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