Radiotherapy for blood vessel blockage (SVCO) | Cancer Research UK
Cancer Research UK on Google+ Cancer Research UK on Facebook Cancer Research UK on Twitter

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 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 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 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.

A photo of a linear accelerator, which gives radiotherapy

The staff then leave 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 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 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

More information about radiotherapy

Find out about

External beam radiotherapy

Planning external beam radiotherapy

Radiotherapy moulds and masks

Radiotherapy side effects

For general information and support

Contact the Cancer Research UK nurses on freephone 0808 800 4040 (Open 9am to 5pm, Monday to Friday)

Share experiences on our online forum – Cancer Chat

Rate this page:
Submit rating


Rated 5 out of 5 based on 1 votes
Rate this page
Rate this page for no comments box
Please enter feedback to continue submitting
Send feedback
Question about cancer? Contact our information nurse team

No Error

Updated: 14 March 2016