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Side effects of brain tumour radiotherapy

Men and women discussing brain tumours

This page tells you about the side effects you may have during brain tumour radiotherapy and for a few weeks after treatment. There is separate information about delayed or long term side effects which may happen from a few weeks to several months after treatment. 

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A quick guide to what's on this page

You may have some side effects during brain tumour radiotherapy and for a few weeks after treatment. These may include

Hair loss

You may have hair loss in the area of the head being treated. You do not lose all your hair as you do with some cancer drug treatments.

Sickness

You may feel sick when having radiotherapy to the brain. This does not happen to everyone. Your doctor or nurse can give you anti sickness tablets or steroids to help.

Tiredness

You are likely to feel more and more tired as your course of radiotherapy goes on. The tiredness usually goes on for a few weeks after the treatment has finished. It will gradually improve. A rarer complication is somnolence syndrome, which is extreme tiredness, where you sleep nearly all the time. It starts 4 to 6 weeks after treatment ends and lasts a few weeks.

Worsening of brain tumour symptoms

With radiotherapy to the brain, symptoms can sometimes get worse before they get better because radiotherapy can cause swelling. You will have steroids to try and prevent this. The symptoms will get better with time.

Stereotactic radiotherapy

Stereotactic radiotherapy targets the tumour more precisely. It tends to have fewer or milder side effects than regular radiotherapy to the brain.

 

CR PDF Icon You can view and print the quick guides for all the pages in the Treating brain tumours section.

 

 

Hair loss

Hair loss only happens in the area of the head that is being treated. You do not lose all your hair, as you do with chemotherapy. You will usually only lose patches where the radiation beams entered and left your skull. There is information about hair loss and radiotherapy in our main radiotherapy section.

 

Sickness

You may feel sick during a course of radiotherapy treatment to the brain. This doesn't happen to everyone. But if it troubles you, your doctor or nurse can give you anti sickness tablets to take each day before your treatment or you may have steroids. There is detailed information about coping with sickness in our brain radiotherapy side effects section.

 

Tiredness

Tiredness is a common symptom with any radiotherapy treatment. With a course of treatment for a brain tumour, you are likely to feel more and more tired as the course goes on. Sometimes, people sleep practically all day during the final week of their treatment. We have detailed information about coping with tiredness caused by radiotherapy.

Usually the tiredness goes on for a few weeks after the treatment has finished. It will gradually improve. A rarer complication is somnolence syndrome. This is very extreme tiredness, where after treatment you sleep nearly all the time. Somnolence syndrome usually starts 4 to 6 weeks after treatment has finished. Just when you think you are getting over your treatment, this can be a blow. But it will also pass in time.

To reduce somnolence syndrome your doctor may increase the dose of your steroids for a short time.

 

Worsening of your brain tumour symptoms

Radiotherapy for brain tumours can sometimes make symptoms worse before they get better. This is because the treatment can cause swelling in the treatment area. The swelling increases the pressure in the head and makes the symptoms get worse. Your doctor will give you steroids to try to prevent this. But it too will get better in time.

 

Side effects of stereotactic radiotherapy

Stereotactic radiotherapy and radiosurgery target the radiotherapy very precisely at the brain tumour. So a much smaller area of healthy brain tissue is exposed to radiation. This means that the treatment tends to have fewer, or milder, side effects than regular radiotherapy to the brain.

 

More information about side effects

We have general information about the side effects of brain tumour radiotherapy in the radiotherapy section. There is information about long term side effects of brain radiotherapy in this section.

You are also welcome to contact the Cancer Research UK nurses on freephone 0808 800 4040. Lines are open from 9am to 5pm, Monday to Friday. 

You can contact one of the brain tumour organisations or look at our brain tumour reading list. If you want to find people to share experiences with online, you could use CancerChat, our online forum.

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Updated: 30 December 2013