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What are the side effects of brain cancer treatment?

Side effects of brain cancer treatment vary with the treatment plan (for example, surgery, chemotherapy, or radiation) and the overall health status of the patient. Most treatment plans try to keep all side effects to a minimum. For some patients, the side effects of brain cancer treatment can be severe. Treatment plans should include a discussion of potential side effects and the likelihood of them developing, so the patient and their caregivers (family, friends) can make appropriate treatment decisions in conjunction with their medical team. Also, if side effects develop, the patient has some knowledge of what to do about them such as when to take certain medicines (for example, anti-nausea medication is frequently given) or when to call their doctor to report health changes.

Surgical side effects include an increase in current symptoms, damage to normal brain tissue, brain swelling, and seizures. Other symptoms of changes in brain function such as muscle weakness, mental changes, and decreases in any brain-controlled function can occur. Combinations of these side effects may happen. The side effects are most noticeable shortly after surgery but frequently decline over time. Occasionally, the side effects do not go away.

Chemotherapy usually affects (damages or kills) rapidly growing cancer cells but also can affect normal tissue. Chemotherapy is usually given intravenously so the drugs can reach most body organs. Common side effects of chemotherapy are nausea, vomiting, hair loss, and loss of energy. The immune system is often depressed by chemotherapy, which results in a high susceptibility to infections. Other systems, such as the kidneys and the reproductive organs, may also be damaged by chemotherapy and are complications of therapy. Most of the side effects decline over time, but some may not.

Radiation therapy has most of the same side effects as chemotherapy. Most radiation therapy is focused onto the brain cancer tissue, so some systems do not receive direct radiation (immune system, kidneys, and others). The effects on systems not receiving the direct radiation are usually not as severe as those seen with chemotherapy. However, hair and skin are usually affected, resulting in hair loss (sometimes permanently) and reddish and darkened skin that needs protection from the sun.

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