Skin ulcers may occur with various cancers. The treatment of each type of cancer can vary and may include chemotherapy, radiotherapy, surgery, etc. It is beyond the scope of this leaflet to discuss how each type of cancer is treated. This leaflet just discusses the care of the skin ulcer itself.
A skin ulcer is where an area of skin has broken down and you can see what lies underneath it (the underlying tissue). There are various causes of skin ulcers. One cause of a skin ulcer is when a cancerous (malignant) tumour occurs on, or just below, the skin surface. A skin ulcer caused by a cancerous tumour often has a discharge, may bleed, may become infected and may cause an unpleasant smell.
This is usually best done with plenty of warm tap water. A nurse can do this when a dressing is changed. For some people, a shower may be easiest. Antiseptic washes are not usually used, as these may be harmful to the tissues and may delay healing.
The type of dressing chosen depends on various factors. For example, how moist the ulcer is, where the ulcer is, how deep the ulcer is and the amount of discharge. For example, some dressings are good at absorbing discharge. However, if there is little discharge, a dressing is used which has a low ability to take in and hold liquid (this is known as 'absorbency') so as not to dry out the wound. If the ulcer tends to bleed, a dressing containing a material called an alginate may help to control this.
Tell your doctor or nurse if you have pain from the ulcer. Painkillers will usually help. If dressing the ulcer is painful, you can take a strong painkiller 30-60 minutes before dressing changes. If you are already taking painkillers, your doctor may advise a 'top-up' dose before each dressing change. Treatment for the cancer such as chemotherapy or radiotherapy may not only help to shrink the ulcer but also help to reduce the pain.