Chemotherapy for brain cancer
Chemotherapy is the use of drugs to treat cancer. The drugs travel through the bloodstream and damage or destroy rapidly dividing cells (cells that grow quickly) such as cancer cells, while causing the least possible damage to healthy cells.
You may have chemotherapy after surgery and possibly with radiation therapy (chemoradiation).
Learn more about:
- The blood-brain barrier
- How chemotherapy is given
- Side-effects of chemotherapy
- Video: Drug therapies for brain cancer
The blood-brain barrier
The brain has a protection system 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.
Temozolomide is given as a capsule that is taken at home. Each treatment session is usually followed by a rest period of a few weeks. You may have chemotherapy for up to six months.
Side effects of chemotherapy
There are many possible side effects of chemotherapy, depending on the type of drugs you are given. Side effects may include:
- nausea or vomiting
- tiredness, fatigue and lack of energy
- increased risk of infection
- loss of appetite
- mouth sores and ulcers
- diarrhoea or constipation
- skin rash
- breathlessness due to low levels of red blood cells (anaemia)
- low levels of platelets (thrombocytopenia), increasing the risk of abnormal bleeding
- damage to ovaries or testicles, which can make you unable to have children naturally (infertile)
- reduction in the production of blood cells in the bone marrow; you may need to have their blood levels monitored regularly through regular blood tests.
It is rare to lose all your hair with the chemotherapy drugs used to treat brain and spinal cord tumours, although in some cases your hair may become thinner or patchy.
For more on this, see our general section on Chemotherapy.
|Anticonvulsant medicines may be given to prevent seizures before and after treatments for brain tumours. See Managing seizures for more information.|
Video: Drug therapies for brain cancer
A/Prof Andrew Davidson, Neurosurgeon, Macquarie University Hospital, NSW; Dr Lucy Gately, Medical Oncologist, Oncology Clinics Victoria, and Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research, VIC; Melissa Harrison, Allied Health Manager and Senior Neurological Physiotherapist, Advance Rehab Centre, NSW; Scott Jones, Consumer; Anne King, Neurology Cancer Nurse Coordinator, Health Department, WA; Dr Toni Lindsay, Senior Clinical Psychologist and Allied Health Manager, Chris O’Brien Lifehouse, NSW; Elissa McVey, Consumer; Caitriona Nienaber, 13 11 20 Consultant, Cancer Council WA; Dr Claire Phillips, Deputy Director, Radiation Oncology, Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre, VIC.
View the Cancer Council NSW editorial policy.
Coping with cancer?
Ask a health professional or someone who’s been there, or find a support group or forum
Looking for transport, accommodation or home help?
Practical advice and support during and after treatment
Work and cancer
Information for employees, employers and workplaces dealing with cancer