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Radiotherapy for cancer wounds

Nurse and patients talking about cancer

This page is about radiotherapy treatment to treat cancer wounds (ulcerating or bleeding tumours). There is information about

 

What ulcerating tumours are

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

There is detailed information about ulcerating tumours and treatment for ulcerating tumours in the section about coping physically with cancer.

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 and so control pain and bleeding. Your doctor may also 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 will not 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 but is generally about 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.

 

Treatment results

Radiotherapy works well for many ulcerating or bleeding cancers and 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 may 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. 

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

Other side effects will depend on which part of your body is treated. There is information about side effects of radiotherapy in the radiotherapy section.

 

More information about radiotherapy

We have detailed information about external radiotherapy in this section. 

You can 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