Brain Tumor (cont.)

Radiation therapy for brain tumors

Radiation therapy kills brain tumor cells with high-energy x-rays, gamma rays, or protons.

Radiation therapy usually follows surgery. The radiation kills tumor cells that may remain in the area. Sometimes, people who can't have surgery have radiation therapy instead.

Doctors use external and internal types of radiation therapy to treat brain tumors:

  • External radiation therapy: You'll go to a hospital or clinic for treatment. A large machine outside the body is aimed to direct beams of radiation at either the whole brain or more commonly, at specific portions of the brain. Some people need radiation aimed at the spinal cord also. The treatment schedule depends on your age, and the type and size of the tumor. Fractionated external beam therapy, in which small doses or fractions of radiation are given usually once each day, is the most common method of radiation therapy used for people with brain tumors. Giving the total dose of radiation over several weeks helps to protect healthy tissue in the area of the tumor. Treatments are usually 5 days a week for several weeks. A typical visit lasts less than an hour, and each treatment takes only a few minutes. Some treatment centers are studying other ways of delivering external beam radiation therapy:
    • Intensity-modulated radiation therapy or 3-dimensional conformal radiation therapy: These types of treatment use computers to more closely target the brain tumor to lessen the damage to healthy tissue.
    • Proton beam radiation therapy: The source of radiation creates and releases protons rather than X-rays or gamma rays. The doctor aims the proton beam at the tumor. The dose of radiation to normal tissue from a proton beam is less than the dose from an X-ray beam.
    • Stereotactic radiation therapy: Several narrow beams of  X-rays or gamma rays are directed at the tumor from different angles. For this procedure, you wear a rigid head frame. The therapy may be given during a single visit (stereotactic radiosurgery) or over several visits.
  • Internal radiation therapy (implant radiation therapy or brachytherapy): Internal radiation isn't commonly used for treating brain tumors, but is under study. The radiation comes from radioactive material usually contained in very small implants called seeds. The seeds are placed inside the brain and give off radiation for months. They don't need to be removed once the radiation is gone.

Some people have no or few side effects after treatment. Rarely, people may have nausea for several hours after external radiation therapy. The health care team can suggest ways to help you cope with this problem. Radiation therapy also may cause you to become very tired with each radiation treatment. Resting is important, but doctors usually advise people to try to stay as active as they can.

Also, external radiation therapy commonly causes hair loss from the part of the head that was treated. Hair usually grows back within a few months. Radiation therapy also may make the skin on the scalp and ears red, dry, and tender. The health care team can suggest ways to relieve these problems.

Sometimes radiation therapy causes brain tissue to swell. You may get a headache or feel pressure. The health care team watches for signs of this problem. They can provide medicine to reduce the discomfort. Radiation sometimes kills healthy brain tissue. Although rare, this side effect can cause headaches, seizures, or even death.

Radiation may harm the pituitary gland and other areas of the brain. For children, this damage could cause learning problems or slow down growth and development. In addition, radiation increases the risk of secondary tumors later in life.

You may want to ask your doctor these questions about radiation therapy:

  • Why do I need this treatment?
  • When will the treatments begin? When will they end?
  • How will I feel during therapy? Are there side effects?
  • What can I do to take care of myself during therapy?
  • How will we know if the radiation is working?
  • Will I be able to continue my normal activities during treatment?
Medically Reviewed by a Doctor on 3/14/2014

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