Chris O’Brien Lifehouse has opened a new facial nerve clinic, aimed at restoring facial movement to people following head and neck cancer surgery.
More than 4,000 Australians are diagnosed and nearly 1,000 die each year from head and neck cancers, which include cancers of the tongue, gum, mouth, salivary glands, tonsils, pharynx, nasal cavity and larynx. About 70 per cent are men, and 30 per cent are women.
The clinic is the first in Australia, and is designed to meet the need from hundreds of head and neck patients – both those about to undergo surgery that will affect their facial nerves, and those who have been left with lack of facial mobility after surgery.
The clinic will bring together several experts from different specialties in the areas of facial nerve, including physiotherapy, reconstructive surgery, tumour removal, otology, neurophysiology and document the outcomes of patients for research. Other organisations involved include Royal Prince Alfred Hospital through A/Professor Glen Croxson and Dr Sydney Ch’ng, Concord Hospital through Surgeon Dr Gazi Hussain and the University of Sydney through Dr Susan Coulson.
Associate Professor Jonathan Clark, from Chris O’Brien Lifehouse and The University of Sydney, said: “Often the cancer is wrapped around the facial nerve and the nerve has to be sacrificed. Our first priority is to ensure they can close their eye in order to preserve their sight. Then we try to restore facial expression.
Dr Clark, who was trained by Lifehouse founder Chris O’Brien, works in the new facial nerve clinic. “When you’re talking to people, there are so many facial clues that when people don’t respond to you with appropriate emotions, you feel like they don’t understand what you’re saying.
“It has a huge psychological effect on people.”
Patient Jenny Huh can attest to that.
When she was five months pregnant, she found out she had both life and death growing within her. Dr Clark, who treated Ms Huh, told her a tumour wrapped around her facial nerve was growing fast and would have to be urgently removed. She would lose her smile, and the treatment she needed would have to be juggled to save not just her life, but also that of her unborn baby.
Her husband, Inji Jung, tells the story. “We decided to wait another two months to make sure our baby was strong enough survive the operation. Actually, her first contractions of labour started during the operation, and our obstetrician was there, but fortunately our baby was not born during the operation.
“When the operation was over, Dr Clark was able to tell me our baby was fine and my wife was fine, and the tumour was gone. But she had lost her facial nerve and her face was paralysed on one side.
“But compared to the news that my wife is now safe and my baby is fine, that was a minor thing.
“Our baby boy had to be born five weeks later, so my wife could have her radiation treatment.”
The long road back to facial mobility then began. Dr Clark worked first to enable Ms Huh to close her eye, and recently her bottom lip has regained movement.
And the baby’s name?
“We have named him Chris, after Chris O’Brien, who helped people. We want our son to grow up to help people. We have been helped so much by Chris O’Brien Lifehouse and Dr Clark.”