Radiation therapy for brain cancer
Also known as radiotherapy, radiation therapy uses a controlled dose of radiation to kill or damage cancer cells in the area being treated. Treatment is carefully planned to do as little harm as possible to the healthy body tissue near the cancer, though you may experience side effects afterwards.
Learn more about:
- How radiation therapy is given
- How often will you have it?
- Stereotactic radiosurgery (SRS)
- Stereotactic radiation therapy (SRT)
- Proton therapy
- Wearing a face mask
- Side effects of radiation therapy
- Video: What is radiation therapy?
How radiation therapy is given
Radiation therapy is typically given after surgery and possibly along with chemotherapy. Before you start radiation therapy, a radiation therapist will take measurements of your body and do a CT or MRI scan to work out the precise area to be treated.
If you are having radiation therapy for a brain tumour, you will probably need to use a face mask. If you are having radiation therapy for a spinal cord tumour, some small marks may be tattooed on your skin to show the treatment area.
|Radiation therapy is usually combined with chemotherapy to treat glioblastomas (grade 4 tumours). This is called chemoradiation, and is better at treating brain tumours than radiation therapy alone.|
How often will you have it?
How often you have radiation therapy will depend on the size and type of tumour, but usually it is given once a day, from Monday to Friday, for several weeks. During treatment, you will lie on a table under a machine called a linear accelerator. Each daily treatment will last for about 10–15 minutes. Radiation therapy itself is painless; however, there are some possible side effects of radiation that will be discussed with you.
Stereotactic radiosurgery (SRS)
Stereotactic radiosurgery (SRS) is a specialised type of radiation therapy, not a type of surgery, and no cuts are made in the skull. It is used to treat some brain tumours. A specialised radiation machine is used to give very precisely targeted radiation to the tumour.
This means the tumour gets a high dose of radiation while the surrounding healthy brain tissue gets very little. SRS is not suitable for all brain tumours. It may be offered when neurosurgery is not possible or as an alternative to neurosurgery.
It is most commonly used for metastatic cancers that have spread to the brain from another part of the body. It is also used for some meningiomas, pituitary tumours and schwannomas, and is occasionally used for gliomas that have come back after other treatment.
Often, only 1–5 doses of SRS are needed. A treatment session may last between 15 minutes and two hours, depending on the type of radiosurgery given, and you will need to wear a face mask or a frame during the treatment. You will usually be able to go home afterwards.
Stereotactic radiation therapy (SRT)
A stereotactic radiosurgery machine may also be used to deliver a longer course of radiation, particularly for benign brain tumours. This is called stereotactic radiation therapy. The treatment is given as multiple small daily doses.
Proton therapyThis uses protons rather than x-ray beams. Protons are tiny parts of atoms with a positive charge. Proton therapy is useful when the cancer is near sensitive areas, such as the brain, eyes and spinal cord. It is not yet available in Australia (as at mid 2020), but there is funding in special cases to allow Australians to travel overseas for treatment.
Wearing a face mask
You’ll need to wear a plastic face mask during radiation therapy to the brain. This is known as an immobilisation mask. It will help keep your head still and make sure the radiation is directed to the same area during each session. It’s made especially for you and fixed to the table.
The mask is made of a tight-fitting mesh, but you will wear it for only about 10 minutes at a time. You can see and breathe through the mask, but it may feel strange at first. Let the radiation therapist know if wearing the mask makes you feel anxious, as this can be managed with medicines.
Side effects of radiation therapy
Radiation therapy side effects generally occur in the treatment area and are usually temporary, but some may last for a few months or years, or be permanent.
The side effects vary depending on whether the tumour is in the brain or spinal cord. They may include:
- nausea – often occurs several hours after treatment
- headaches – often occur during the course of treatment
- tiredness or fatigue – worse at the end of treatment; can continue to build after treatment, but usually improves over a month or so
- dry, itchy, red, sore or flaky skin – may occur in the treatment area, usually happens at the end of treatment and lasts one to two weeks before going away
- hair loss – may occur in the brain tumour treatment area and may be permanent
- dulled hearing – may occur if fluid builds up in the middle ear and may be permanent.
Side effects specific for spinal cord tumours include swallowing problems (dysphagia) and diarrhoea. Both are temporary.
If any side effects develop, talk to your radiation oncology team.
A small number of adults who have had radiation therapy to the brain have side effects that appear months or years after treatment. These are called late effects and can include symptoms such as poor memory, confusion and headaches. The problems that might develop depend on the part of the brain that was treated.
High-dose radiation to the pituitary gland can cause it to produce too much or too little of particular hormones. This can affect body temperature, growth, sleep, weight and appetite. The hormone levels in your pituitary gland will be monitored during treatment.
For more on this, see our general section on Radiation therapy.
Video: Radiation therapy
Podcast: Making treatment decisions
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?
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