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Rehabilitation after head and neck cancer treatment

The information on this page was reviewed and approved by
Maurie Markman, MD, President, Medicine & Science at CTCA.

This page was updated on September 21, 2021.

After treatment for head and neck cancer, you may need rehabilitation services such as speech, physical, occupational or nutritional therapy. The types of services recommended depend on where the cancer was located and how it was treated.

Reconstructive surgery may help correct any cosmetic issues that may have resulted from your treatment, but rehabilitation services aim to restore or improve functions that may have been lost or compromised, such as chewing, speaking or swallowing.

Rehabilitation services may dramatically improve your function and quality of life. Sometimes, these services begin before cancer treatment to prevent or lessen any potential problems down the road. This is known as preventive rehabilitation.

Treatment

Below is a snapshot of the various services that may help you get your life back after head and neck cancer treatment.

Speech/swallowing therapy: Dysphagia, the medical term for trouble swallowing, may occur if part or all of your tongue is removed during surgery. Speech therapists may help you relearn this important skill with exercises that strengthen the muscles in your mouth and throat. You may also learn new ways to swallow during therapy. Research in a 2019 issue of Disability and Rehabilitation shows that swallowing therapy may improve a patient’s ability to swallow and decrease pain. Your speech may be less clear if you’ve had part of your tongue removed. A speech therapist may help with this, too.

Hearing therapy: If head and neck cancer treatment damages your hearing, you may need to visit an audiologist, who may discuss devices to help you regain all or part of your hearing.

Olfactory rehabilitation: You may lose your sense of smell as a result of head and neck cancer treatment. This may occur if you receive radiation close to your nose. Loss of smell affects your ability to taste food, and may result in decreased appetite and weight loss. Olfactory rehabilitation involves learning new strategies to boost nasal airflow, such as nasal airflow-inducing maneuver. A therapist teaches you how to create negative pressure by lowering your jaw, mouth, tongue and soft palate with your lips closed.

Nutritional therapy: If you can’t swallow, you can’t eat, and you may lose weight. Sometimes a feeding tube is necessary to make sure you’re getting all of the nutrients you need to regain your strength. A licensed nutritionist may help you make better diet choices and teach you to prepare healthful foods in different ways so that they’re easier to swallow.

Physical therapy: Another common concern following head and neck cancer treatment is neck or shoulder dysfunction. This occurs when the muscles in your neck and upper back become weak. Physical therapists may help design a range of motion exercises to strengthen these muscles and nerves.

Physical therapists may also help treat the pain of lymphedema, which occurs when there’s a buildup of lymph fluid in your arm or leg as a result of treatment. They may suggest specialized massages, compression garments or exercises to reduce swelling and pain.

Occupational therapy: If treatment side effects are affecting your ability to perform activities of daily living—such as cleaning, cooking or getting dressed—an occupational therapist may help you overcome these hurdles. Therapy may involve using assistive devices and/or learning fatigue-fighting strategies to better conserve your energy throughout the day.

Mental health care: It can be hard to adjust to life after cancer. You may be struggling with anxiety and/or depression. A therapist may help you sort through these emotions. Support groups may also be beneficial.

Actively participating in any rehab services is key. You only get out what you put in. Make sure to discuss your needs with your cancer care team, so that you get the correct services.

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