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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


Why radiotherapy is used

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. It is likely to be the most effective treatment available because very few cancer drugs can get from the bloodstream into the brain. 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. It is very important that you keep perfectly still. So you may have a mask or shell made especially for you. 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.

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 of having the treatment.

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.

Radiotherapy to the head often makes people feel sick, so 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.

There is detailed information about the side effects of brain radiotherapy in the radiotherapy section.

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Updated: 3 July 2012