Decorative image

What is an ulcerating tumour?

Ulcerating tumours are also known as fungating wounds, malignant wounds or ulcerating wounds.

The term fungating comes from the way the wounds grow, in the shape of a fungus or cauliflower.

The wounds start when a tumour growing under the skin breaks through the skin’s surface. They can also develop from skin cancers such as melanoma.

Ulcerating tumours are quite rare in people with cancer. When they do develop, they are most likely in breast, head and neck cancers.

Up to 6 out of 10 (60%) ulcerating tumours develop in the breast area and 2 to 3 out of 10 (20 to 30%) in the head and neck region. The rest occur in other places such as the groin and genital area, and in people with melanoma and bowel cancer.

How ulcerating tumours develop

An ulcerating tumour can develop in two ways. It may develop as part of a:

  • primary tumour
  • secondary tumour

Primary tumours

A primary tumour means a tumour where the cancer started.

An ulcerating tumour can develop in a cancer that hasn't been treated. Sometimes people are so frightened about what a doctor will tell them that they don't go to the doctor even when they have symptoms of cancer (for example, a lump in their breast).

A cancer that’s left untreated for many months or years can grow upwards and into the skin. It can then break through the skin and cause an open sore (or ulcer) on the skin surface.

Secondary tumours

A secondary tumour is a tumour that has spread from a primary site to other parts of the body.

A tumour that spreads to the blood and lymphatic system can travel to the skin and develop into an ulcerating tumour.

This is very rare. It’s more likely to happen in the advanced stages of cancer (a cancer that has spread).

The important thing is to always attend follow up appointments after your treatment has finished. Then your doctor can check you over and pick up any early signs of problems.

In between follow up appointments don’t be afraid to contact your doctor if you are worried, especially if you have any new symptoms, such as unexplained skin lumps or sores.

Effects of ulcerating tumours

For some people, an ulcerating tumour is the most upsetting aspect of their cancer.

How the wound affects you will depend on where it is on your body. It can greatly affect how you feel about yourself if it’s very visible to other people – for example, on your face.

A wound near a joint or armpit can affect how you move. And wounds on or near the genitals or breasts might make you feel embarrassed, especially when a doctor or nurse is examining or treating you.

Unfortunately, these wounds can also smell unpleasant, which can be very distressing.

A few people find having an ulcerating tumour so distressing that they refuse to accept it's there. They feel the best way to deal with it is to ignore it. Sometimes people leave their wound so long that by the time they do see a doctor, little can be done to control it.

But it’s possible to manage the symptoms of these wounds so that they are easier to live with.

It is important to see your doctor as soon as you notice any signs of an ulcerating tumour.

Having an ulcerating tumour might have a big impact on how you feel about yourself and being with other people.

Your outward appearance can play a big part in how you feel about social situations. You might be worried and embarrassed about other people seeing or smelling your wound. This could stop you wanting to go out or see people.

It can help you feel better about yourself, and about mixing with other people, if you have surgical dressing you feel comfortable with and clothing or headgear that covers up your wound.

Some types of cancer treatment can help to shrink ulcerating tumours but they can be very hard to get rid of completely. So the aim of treatment is to control the symptoms.

Last reviewed: 
29 Jan 2015
  • Cancer and its management (7th edition)
    Tobias J and Hochhauser D
    Wiley-Blackwell, 2015

  • Symptom management in advanced cancer (4th edition)
    Twycross R, Wilcock A and Toller S
    Radcliffe Medical Press Ltd, 2009

  • Fungating wounds - Multidimensional challenge in palliative care
    Breast Care 2011;6:21-24. PMID 21547022

  • Review of patients' experiences with fungating wounds and associated qualify of life
    Journal of Wound Care, Vol 22, No 5, May 2013.

Information and help

Dangoor sponsorship

About Cancer generously supported by Dangoor Education since 2010.