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Radiotherapy for cancer wounds

Cancer wounds happen when tumours growing under the skin break through. Radiotherapy can shrink the cancer and help dry up the wound.

What cancer wounds are

Cancer wounds are called ulcerating tumours. They happen when a tumour growing under the skin breaks through the skin’s surface. They are also called fungating tumours. They can also develop from skin cancers such as melanoma. 

Ulcerating tumours can be upsetting to have and to cope with. They might be painful and can bleed or produce liquid. They can also smell unpleasant.

Some tumours such as advanced cancers of the vagina, skin, rectum and bladder can form ulcerating areas inside the body that bleed.

How radiotherapy can help

Radiotherapy is a commonly used treatment for ulcerating tumours. It is very good at shrinking the cancer and can help to dry up and heal the wound as much as possible to control pain and bleeding. 

Your doctor might recommend that you have antibiotics as well as the radiotherapy. Antibiotics can control infection and reduce any unpleasant smell from the wound. 

The radiotherapy can make the area more comfortable and may sometimes heal the wound completely. The treatment won't cure your cancer but can keep your symptoms under control. 

Radiotherapy is one of a range of treatments to control bleeding tumours. Other treatments include special dressings and packing the wound to put pressure on the bleeding area.

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.

Treatment results

Radiotherapy works well for many ulcerating or bleeding cancers. You should notice that your symptoms start to improve within 1 or 2 weeks. But a large or deep ulcer will take some time to heal. The treatment might heal the ulcer completely or it may shrink it and make it easier to manage.

Side effects

The ulcerated area may seem worse at first when you begin radiotherapy. This is because the cancer cells are dying off and making the wound seem larger or deeper. But then it should start to improve and heal.

Other side effects are usually mild. They include:

  • feeling more tired than before the treatment started
  • a mild skin reaction to the radiotherapy, making the surrounding skin red, or dry and flaky
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

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