Decorative image

Radiotherapy for blood vessel blockage (SVCO)

Radiotherapy can help shrink the cancer quickly when tumours block blood vessels.

How radiotherapy can help

Tumours in the head and neck area can sometimes press on a large vein in the neck which carries blood back to the heart. The vein is called the superior vena cava. 

Blockage of the vein is called superior vena cava obstruction (SVCO). SVCO stops blood getting to the heart and causes breathlessness as well as swelling of the face and neck. It needs urgent treatment.

Radiotherapy often works very well for SVCO. It aims to shrink the cancer and stop it pressing on your vena cava as quickly as possible. It can control the symptoms and help you feel more comfortable but it won't cure your cancer. 

Sometimes chemotherapy is used instead of radiotherapy for SVCO. Or before radiotherapy, your doctor might suggest putting a tube called a stent, into the blood vessel to keep it open.

How you have treatment

You have radiotherapy as a series of treatment sessions called fractions. You have to go to the radiotherapy department every day but each treatment only takes a few minutes. You have treatment once a day, from Monday to Friday. The exact length of the course depends on your particular situation. The course can last anywhere between 1 day to 2 weeks.

First, you have a specialised CT planning scan so the treatment team can plan exactly where to give the radiotherapy. You might also need to have a plastic mould made to keep you completely still during the treatment sessions.

To have the treatment you lie on a radiotherapy couch. The radiographers help you to get into the right position.

Photo of a linear accelerator
A photograph of a linear accelerator

The staff then leave the room. This is so they are not exposed to the radiation. You are alone for a few minutes. The radiographers watch you carefully on a closed circuit television screen.

You can't feel the radiotherapy. It doesn’t hurt but you might find it uncomfortable to lie in position during the treatment. The radiotherapy couch can be quite hard. You can ask your doctor or specialist nurse if you can take a painkiller half an hour beforehand if you think it might help.

Results of the treatment

Radiotherapy helps to reduce the symptoms of SVCO caused by lung cancer in more than 6 out of 10 patients (60%).

For other cancer types, how well the treatment works depends on how well the cancer normally responds to radiotherapy. 

The treatment usually works fairly quickly and most people notice a good improvement in symptoms within 2 or 3 weeks. But you might see some improvement within a few days.

Side effects

The side effects tend to be mild. They usually come on gradually as you go through your treatment course. They might last for a week or two after the treatment has finished.

Your doctor or nurse will tell you about any possible side effects before you have the treatment. They can include:

  • feeling more tired than before the treatment started
  • skin may go red in the treatment area
Last reviewed: 
14 Mar 2016
  • External Beam Therapy
    Peter Hoskin
    OUP Oxford, 30 Aug 2012

  • De Vita, Hellman, and Rosenberg's Cancer: Principles and Practice of Oncology (9th edition)
    De Vita, V.T., Lawrence, T.S. and Rosenberg S.A.
    Lippincott, Williams and Wilkins, 2011

  • Radiotherapy in practice - Brachytherapy (2nd edition)
    P Hoskin, C Coyle
    Oxford University Press, 2011

  • Radiotherapy Dose-Fractionation
    Royal College of Radiologists, 2006.

Information and help

Dangoor sponsorship

About Cancer generously supported by Dangoor Education since 2010.