Radiotherapy for brain cancer symptoms | Cancer Research UK
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Radiotherapy for brain cancer symptoms

Nurse and patients talking about cancer

This page is about radiotherapy for symptoms caused by cancer in the brain. There is information about


How radiotherapy can help

When cancer has spread to the brain from a primary cancer elsewhere in the body, it is called a secondary brain tumour or a brain metastasis. A cancer growing inside the brain increases pressure inside the skull. This can cause symptoms such as a bad headache, sickness, and increasing drowsiness.

Radiotherapy is the most common treatment for secondary brain tumours. It can shrink the cancer, relieve the pressure inside your skull, and so relieve your symptoms. There is information about secondary brain tumours and treatment with radiotherapy in the brain tumour section.

Your doctor may suggest that you have radiotherapy to the whole of your brain, as well as the obvious areas of cancer. This is because there are likely to be cancer cells in other parts of the brain that are too small to show up on a scan. Radiotherapy to the whole head may kill these small areas of cancer and so stop them causing problems in the future.


How you have treatment

You have radiotherapy to the brain as a course of daily treatment sessions called fractions. How long the course lasts will vary. But it is likely to be 1 to 2 weeks of daily treatments. 

You have a specialised CT planning scan so the treatment team can plan exactly where to give the radiotherapy. 

To have the treatment you lie on a radiotherapy couch. The radiographers will help you to get into the right position. It is very important that you keep perfectly still. So you may have a mask or shell to wear. While you are lying down, the mask fixes over your face and head and onto the radiotherapy couch. It makes sure that you don’t move in the middle of your treatment.

A photo of a linear accelerator, which gives radiotherapy

Once you are in the right position the staff leave you alone in the room. This is so they are not exposed to the radiation. You will be alone for a few minutes. The radiographers watch you carefully either through a window or on a closed circuit television screen.

You can't feel the radiotherapy. It doesn’t hurt but you may find it uncomfortable to lie in position during the treatment. The radiotherapy couch can be quite hard. You can ask your doctor or specialist nurse if you can take a painkiller half an hour beforehand if you think it might help.

Some people with secondary brain cancers have stereotactic radiotherapy, which precisely aims the radiotherapy beams at the areas of cancer. This is most likely if you have only one or two secondary tumours to treat in the brain.


Treatment results

Palliative brain radiotherapy may take a few days or weeks to work. The radiotherapy may cause a little swelling around the tumour at first, which may make your symptoms seem as though they are getting worse. But you should then notice that your symptoms start to improve within a couple of weeks.

The radiotherapy may also help to stop new areas of cancer developing in the brain. So although you will not notice it, the treatment may be stopping the situation from worsening.


Side effects of brain radiotherapy

If you have treatment to your brain, some or all of your hair may fall out. You only get hair loss within the area treated with radiotherapy. It usually starts to grow back a few months after the treatment is over. But this growth is sometimes patchy, particularly at first. Your nurse can give you information about coping with hair loss and getting a wig before the treatment starts. There are also other ways of covering your head.

Radiotherapy to the head often makes people feel sick. You will need anti sickness medicines to take every day before your treatment. 

The treatment will make you increasingly drowsy as you go through the course. You may find it very hard to stay awake after a week or so. This drowsiness will gradually go within a few weeks of your treatment finishing.

We have detailed information about the side effects of brain radiotherapy.


More information about radiotherapy

We have detailed information about external radiotherapy in this section. 

You can phone the Cancer Research UK nurses on freephone 0808 800 4040. The lines are open from 9am to 5pm, Monday to Friday. They will be happy to answer any questions that you have.

Our general organisations page gives details of people who can provide information about radiotherapy. Some organisations can put you in touch with a cancer support group. Our cancer and treatments reading list has information about books, leaflets and other resources about radiotherapy treatment.

If you want to find people to share experiences with online, you could use Cancer Chat, our online forum.

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Updated: 30 April 2014