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.

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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
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