Chemotherapy for brain cancer
Chemotherapy uses drugs to kill or slow the growth of cancer cells. The aim is to destroy cancer cells while causing the least possible damage to healthy cells. For more on this, see our general section on Chemotherapy.
Learn more about:
- The blood-brain barrier
- How chemotherapy is given
- Side-effects of chemotherapy
- Video: Chemotherapy for brain cancer
The blood-brain barrier
The brain has a structure known as the blood–brain barrier, which helps protect the brain from substances in the blood, such as germs or chemicals, that may injure the brain. Only certain types of chemotherapy drugs can get through this barrier.
How chemotherapy is given
You may be given chemotherapy as capsules or tablets that you swallow (orally), or as a liquid through a drip inserted into your vein (intravenously).
Temozolomide is the most commonly prescribed chemotherapy drug for the treatment of glioma brain tumours. It is given as a capsule you take at home for five days in a row, followed by a rest period of a few weeks. This is called a cycle and each cycle lasts for 28 days. You are likely to have 6–12 cycles of temozolomide, though it may continue for longer.
Side effects of chemotherapy
There are many possible side effects of chemotherapy, depending on the type of drugs you are given. Talk to your doctor about ways to reduce or manage any side effects you have.
Side effects are mostly mild with temozolomide and may include:
- nausea or vomiting
- tiredness, fatigue and lack of energy
- increased risk of infection
- mouth sores and ulcers
- diarrhoea or constipation
- loss of appetite
- skin rash
- liver damage
- damage to ovaries or testicles, which can make you unable to have children naturally (infertile)
- breathlessness due to low levels of red blood cells (anaemia)
- low levels of platelets (thrombocytopenia), increasing the risk of abnormal bleeding
- reduction in the production of blood cells in the bone marrow; you will usually have regular blood tests to monitor your blood levels.
It is rare to lose all your hair with the chemotherapy drugs used for brain and spinal cord tumours, although in some cases your hair may become thinner or patchy.
See Managing chemotherapy side effects for more information.
Video: Chemotherapy for brain cancer
Podcast: Making Treatment Decisions
A/Prof Lindy Jeffree, Neurosurgeon, Royal Brisbane and Women’s Hospital, QLD; Emma Daly, Neuro-oncology Clinical Nurse Consultant, Cabrini Health, VIC; A/Prof Andrew Davidson, Neurosurgeon, Victorian Gamma Knife Service, Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre and Department of Neurosurgery, Royal Melbourne Hospital, VIC; Beth Doggett, Consumer; Kate Fernandez, 13 11 20 Consultant, Cancer Council SA; Melissa Harrison, Allied Health Manager and Senior Neurological Physiotherapist, Advance Rehab Centre, NSW; A/Prof Rosemary Harrup, Director, Cancer and Blood Services, Royal Hobart Hospital, TAS; A/Prof Eng-Siew Koh, Radiation Oncologist, Liverpool Cancer Therapy Centre, Liverpool Hospital and University of New South Wales, NSW; Andy Stokes, Consumer.
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