Radiation therapy for brain cancer

Radiation therapy for brain tumours is a type of treatment that uses high-energy x-ray beams to kill or damage cancer cells. The radiation is specifically targeted at the treatment site to reduce the risk of damage to healthy cells. The treatment itself is usually painless, though you may experience side effects afterwards.

Radiation therapy treatment is usually given once daily, from Monday to Friday, for several weeks. However, the course of your treatment will depend on the size and type of the tumour.

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How treatment is planned

Simulation – Before radiation therapy begins, you will need to have a simulation or planning appointment to plan the treatment. A radiation therapist will take measurements of your body, as well as doing a CT scan, to work out the precise area to be treated.

Skin markings – If you are receiving radiation therapy treatment for a spinal cord tumour, some small tattoos may be marked on your skin to indicate the treatment area.

Mask – If you are having radiation therapy for a brain tumour, a face mask is made before your CT session to keep the head in position. The face mask is made of a tight-fitting mesh, but you will only wear it for about 10 minutes at a time. You can see and breathe through the mask but it may feel strange and uncomfortable at first. Your treating team can talk to you about techniques to help you manage if you need them.

Stereotactic radiosurgery

Stereotactic radiosurgery is a specialised type of radiation therapy, not a type of surgery. Stereotactic radiosurgery is sometimes called Gamma Knife or CyberKnife treatment, after the machines used to give it.

It is a non-invasive treatment that uses high doses of precisely targeted radiation to treat a brain tumour. Treatment is so accurate that surrounding areas of healthy brain tissue are unlikely to be affected.

A treatment session usually lasts between 15 minutes and two hours, depending on the type of radiosurgery given. You will usually be able to return home afterwards.

When stereotactic radiosurgery is used

Radiosurgery may be offered when traditional surgery is not suitable or as an alternative to open surgery.

It is most commonly used for some meningiomas and pituitary tumours, and acoustic neuroma. It is also used for metastatic cancers that have spread from another part of the body.

Stereotactic radiosurgery may also be used to deliver a long course of radiation, particularly for benign brain tumours. The same precise system is used, but several small treatments are given.

Side effects of radiation therapy

Radiation therapy side effects commonly occur in the treatment area and are usually temporary, but some may be permanent or last for a few months or years.

The side effects vary depending on if you have a brain or spinal cord tumour. They may include:

  • nausea – often occurs during the course of treatment
  • headaches – often occur during the course of treatment
  • tiredness or fatigue – worse at the end of treatment for a brain or spinal cord tumour, and fades over time
  • red, sore, inflamed or flaky skin – may occur in the treatment area, usually happens at the end of treatment for brain tumours, but can and may worsen before improving
  • hair loss – may occur in the brain tumour treatment area
  • swallowing problems (dysphagia) – may occur following treatment for spinal cord tumours
  • diarrhoea – may occur after radiation therapy for spinal cord tumours.

Some people experience similar side effects for several years after treatment. However, it is not always clear if these changes are caused by radiation therapy, the tumour or other treatment.

You may benefit from rehabilitation therapy or medication. Your treatment team may also monitor the hormone levels in your pituitary gland.

Video: Radiation therapy

Learn more about what radiation therapy is, the types of radiation therapy, common side effects, and managing those side effects.

This information was last reviewed in May 2016
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