Radiotherapy for blood vessel blockage (SVCO) | Cancer Research UK
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Radiotherapy for blood vessel blockage (SVCO)

Nurse and patients talking about cancer

This page is about radiotherapy to treat blockage of a large vein in the neck which carries blood back to the heart (superior vena cava obstruction). There is information about


How radiotherapy can help with SVCO

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 will not cure your cancer. Sometimes chemotherapy is used instead of radiotherapy for SVCO. Or before radiotherapy, your doctor may suggest putting a tube called a stent into the blood vessel to keep it open.


How you have radiotherapy for SVCO

You are most likely to have external beam radiotherapy for SVCO obstruction. You will probably have a course of daily treatment sessions called fractions. You have treatment once a day, from Monday to Friday. Each treatment only takes a few minutes. The exact length of the course depends on your particular situation and can be anything between 1 day and 2 weeks.

First, you have a specialised CT planning scan so the treatment team can plan exactly where to give the radiotherapy. You may 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 will help you to get into the right position.

A photo of a linear accelerator, which gives radiotherapy

Once you are in the right position the staff leave you alone in the room. This is so they are not exposed to the radiation. You will be alone for a few minutes. The radiographers watch you carefully either through a window or on a closed circuit television screen.

You can't feel the radiotherapy. It doesn’t hurt but you may 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 may 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 may 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.

  • You may feel more tired than before the treatment started
  • Your skin may go red in the treatment area

We have information about radiotherapy side effects in this section.


More information about radiotherapy

We have detailed information about external radiotherapy in this section. 

You can also phone the Cancer Research UK nurses on freephone 0808 800 4040. The lines are open from 9am to 5pm, Monday to Friday. They will be happy to answer any questions that you have.

Our general organisations page gives details of people who can provide information about radiotherapy. Some organisations can put you in touch with a cancer support group. Our cancer and treatments reading list has information about books, leaflets and other resources about radiotherapy treatment.

If you want to find people to share experiences with online, you could use Cancer Chat, our online forum.

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Updated: 30 April 2014