Chemotherapy for brain cancer

Chemotherapy for brain tumours is the use of drugs to treat cancer. Generally, chemotherapy drugs travel through the bloodstream and damage or destroy rapidly dividing cells such as cancer cells, while causing the least possible damage to healthy cells. Healthy fast-growing cells, such as your bone marrow, may also be affected, causing side effects.

Learn more about:

Listen to podcasts on Making Treatment Decisions and Coping with a Cancer Diagnosis

Blood-brain barrier

It can be difficult to treat brain tumours with chemotherapy drugs because the body has a protection system called the blood-brain barrier. This guards the brain from substances that could harm it by circulating in the blood, such as germs or chemicals. Only certain drugs can get through this barrier.

How chemotherapy is given

You may be given chemotherapy as an oral capsule or through a drip inserted into your vein (intravenously). Each treatment session is usually followed by a rest period of a few weeks.

Oral temozolomide is commonly used to treat gliomas because it is generally effective and well tolerated. If the tumour progresses or recurs while you are taking temozolomide, your onocologist may consider changing the dose or switching to a different chemotherapy drug or combination.

Side effects of chemotherapy

The way your body reacts to chemotherapy will be monitored through regular blood tests, and may change depending on your response to the drugs.

Side effects of chemotherapy will depend on the type of drugs you are given. These may include:

  • increased risk of infection
  • nausea, vomiting or loss of appetite
  • tiredness, fatigue and lack of energy
  • mouth sores and ulcers
  • diarrhoea or constipation
  • breathlessness due to low red blood cell levels (anaemia)
  • the feeling of pins and needles (nerve damage known as peripheral neuropathy).

Hair loss is rare with the drugs commonly used to treat brain and spinal cord tumours.

Video: Drug therapies for brain cancer

Find out more about the different kind of drug therapies that may be used to treat brain cancer, such as chemotherapy, steroid therapy, and anti-convulsant medication.

This information was last reviewed in May 2016
View who reviewed this content
View our editorial policy

Support services

Coping with cancer?
Speak to a health professional or to someone who has been there, or find a support group or forum

Need legal and financial assistance?
Pro bono services, financial and legal assistance, and no interest loans

Looking for transport, accommodation or home help?
Practical advice and support during and after treatment

Cancer information

What is cancer?
How cancer starts and spreads

Dealing with the diagnosis
Common reactions to a cancer diagnosis and how to find hope

View our publications
Guides and fact sheets for people with cancer, their families and friends