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About ulcerating cancers (fungating tumours)

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

What is an ulcerating cancer?

Ulcerating cancers are sometimes called fungating cancers (tumours) or wounds. Fungating describes what the cancer might look like. They can grow in the shape of a fungus or cauliflower.

These 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.

Who gets it?

Ulcerating wounds are quite rare. But, they can appear in the following areas of the body:

  • breast
  • head and neck
  • chest
  • arms and legs
  • genitals

Ulcerating (fungating) wounds can start in 2 different ways. They can grow from a:

  • primary tumour (where a cancer started)
  • secondary tumour (cancer spread to another part of the body)

Fungating wounds from primary tumours

A primary tumour means a tumour where the cancer started.

An ulcerating tumour can develop in untreated cancer. Sometimes people are so frightened about what a doctor will tell them that they don't go to the doctor. This might even be 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.

Fungating wounds from 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. It can develop into an ulcerating tumour, but this is rare.

Always attend follow up appointments after your treatment has finished. This way your doctor can pick up any early signs of problems.

Contact your doctor between follow up appointments if you are worried. You should especially do so if you have any new symptoms, such as unexplained skin lumps or sores.

How it might affect you

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 affect how you feel about yourself if it’s very visible, such as on your face.

A wound near a joint or armpit can affect how you move. It might also be painful or itchy.

A wound on or near the genitals or breasts might make you feel embarrassed. It can particularly be hard when a doctor or nurse is examining or treating you.

Ulcerating wounds can also smell unpleasant or leak. This can be very distressing.

A few people find having an ulcerating tumour so distressing that they deny 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, it is more difficult to control.

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

See your doctor as soon as you notice any signs of an ulcerating tumour.

How you feel about yourself and others

When you have an ulcerating tumour it might affect how you feel about yourself. Also, how you feel about being with other people.

You might feel that you have lost control over your body. This can, in turn, make you feel vulnerable.

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

Applying surgical dressings to your wound might help you to cope better. They can make wearing clothes more comfortable. By covering your wound it might also reduce any smell.

Treatment

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

Last reviewed: 
10 Dec 2019
  • Palliative care - malignant skin ulcer

    National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE)

    Accessed December 2019

  • Intervention for symptom management in patients with malignant fungating wounds - a systematic review

    A Tsichlakidou and others

    JBUON 2019; 24(3): 1301-1308

  • HSE National Wound Management Guidelines 2018

    Clinical Strategy and Programmes Division

    The Office of Nursing and Midwifery Services Director

  • Recommendations for the Care of Patients with Malignant Fungating Wounds

    European Oncology Nursing Society (EONS), 2015

  • Systemic antibiotics for treating malignant wounds 
    DA Ramasubbu (and others) 
    Cochrane database of systematic reviews, 2017

  • Cancer and its Management (7th edition)
    J Tobias  and D Hochhauser
    Wiley-Blackwell, 2015

Information and help