Radiotherapy to relieve pressure or a blockage | Cancer Research UK
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Radiotherapy to relieve pressure or a blockage

Nurse and patients talking about cancer

This page is about radiotherapy for tumours causing a blockage or pressure in the body. There is information about


Symptoms caused by a blockage or pressure

Tumours can block passages in the body such as the wind pipe or food pipe. For example, a growth in your digestive system can stop food passing through and cause pain, bloating and sickness. If you have an advanced stage head and neck cancer, such as cancer of the larynx or cancer of the mouth or oropharynx, you may have difficulty swallowing. Or your cancer may press on your windpipe and make it difficult for you to breathe. 

Pressure from a tumour in the body can also cause a range of symptoms including pain. Below is information about

Nerve pain

Nerve pain is caused by your tumour pressing on nerves, or by damage to nerves. It is also called neuropathic pain. It is usually more difficult to treat than other types of pain. People often describe nerve pain as burning or as if something is crawling under their skin. Nerve pain is usually in one area of the body. You feel it in a particular place. 

A course of radiotherapy can shrink your tumour so that there is less pressure on the nerve and you have less pain. There is information about nerve pain in the cancer and pain control section.

Pain from pressure on a body organ

Your tumour may press on a body organ. For example, a tumour in the bowel may press on your stomach or liver. A course of radiotherapy may shrink the tumour to relieve the pressure. Cancer that has spread to the liver can cause pressure on the fibrous covering of the liver itself. There are nerves in this membrane and it can be quite painful. Radiotherapy may help to shrink the tumours and relieve the pressure.


The aim of radiotherapy treatment

Radiotherapy may be the quickest way of shrinking a cancer and relieving symptoms. It can be especially good if a growing cancer is causing pressure on nearby parts of the body or blocking a tube, such as the bowel. The treatment will not cure your cancer. But it will help you feel better and can slow the cancer down. This can give you a better quality of life for a longer time.

Radiotherapy treatment aims to shrink your tumour and relieve your symptoms as quickly as possible. The cancer may grow back again but could take a while to do so. The radiotherapy may relieve your symptoms for some time but no one will be able to say exactly how long.


Having radiotherapy to relieve a blockage

How you have the treatment depends on whether you have external beam radiotherapy or internal radiotherapy

External beam radiotherapy

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 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.

You may have just 1 treatment or a series of treatments given daily for a few days.

Internal radiotherapy (brachytherapy)

Internal radiotherapy is also called brachytherapy and doctors use this for tumours in some parts of the body. For example, if you have a tumour in your food pipe (oesophagus), your doctor may decide that the best way to shrink it is with brachytherapy. You have a tube put down your nose and into your food pipe. This is known as an NG tube or nasogastric tube. The tube contains a radioactive metal source.

Using a scan, the doctor positions the radioactive source in the NG tube next to the tumour. They leave it there for a few minutes and then take it out. This treatment gives a high dose of radiotherapy directly to the cancer. Very little radiation reaches the surrounding healthy tissues.


Treatment results

Radiotherapy takes a little while to begin to work. We can’t say how long your particular treatment will take to work because this general information page covers a lot of different situations. But your specialist would expect to see some improvements in your symptoms within a few days.


Possible side effects

This type of radiotherapy does not usually cause many side effects and they tend to be mild. The side effects tend to come on as you go through your treatment course and may last for a week or two after the treatment has ended.

You may feel more tired than before the treatment started. 

If you have external radiotherapy your skin may go red in the treatment area. 

You may feel sick if your stomach is in the treatment area. To help control this, your doctor or nurse can give you anti sickness medicines (anti emetics). You may find that taking an anti sickness tablet 20 minutes before your treatment helps.

If your bowel is in the treatment area, you may have some diarrhoea. Your doctor or nurse can give you some medicines to help control diarrhoea.


More information about radiotherapy

We have detailed information about external radiotherapy and internal radiotherapy in this section. There is also detailed information about the side effects of radiotherapy.

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