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Steroid treatment for brain tumours

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Steroid treatment for brain tumours

Steroids occur naturally in the body and help to control many functions. They can also be made artificially and used as drugs. They are very powerful anti inflammatory drugs that help to stop swelling. They make the blood vessels around brain tumours less leaky and so reduce swelling in the brain.

When your brain tumour is first diagnosed, you are most likely to have steroids to reduce swelling. After successful treatment for the brain tumour, your specialist will slowly reduce your steroid dose. With advanced brain tumours or tumours that have come back, steroids can help to keep symptoms under control for as long as possible.

Remember that it is extremely important to take your steroids exactly as your doctor has told you. It can be very harmful to stop taking your tablets suddenly.

Side effects of steroids

When you take steroid tablets, there are a lot of possible side effects. These include

  • Increased appetite, weight gain and water retention
  • Sugar in your urine (diabetes), causing thirst and passing a lot of urine
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Mood changes
  • A metallic taste in the mouth
  • Increased risk of infection or hiding the symptoms of infection
  • Stomach irritation, which can lead to an ulcer (always take steroid tablets with food)
  • An acne type rash, or skin thinning causing stretch marks
  • Flushing and night sweats
  • Muscle wasting and bone thinning (with long term use)

 

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What steroids are

Steroids occur naturally in the body in small amounts and help to control many functions. They can also be made artificially and used as drugs. They are very powerful anti inflammatory drugs that help to stop swelling. They make the blood vessels around brain tumours less leaky and so reduce swelling in the brain.

 

Steroids for brain tumours

It is common to have steroids as part of your treatment for a brain tumour. Your specialist may recommend steroids in any of the following situations.

  • When you are first diagnosed
  • Before and after surgery
  • Before and after radiotherapy
  • For an advanced brain tumour

When your brain tumour is first diagnosed, your doctor is likely to prescribe steroids to reduce swelling. The tumour takes up space inside your skull and can increase the pressure inside your head. The pressure increase can cause headaches, sickness and fits (seizures). After successful treatment for the brain tumour, your specialist will slowly reduce your steroid dose.

Surgery and radiotherapy can both increase swelling at first. So your specialist will wait until this has worn off before reducing your steroid dose.

Remember that it is extremely important to take your steroids exactly as your doctor has told you. Steroids occur naturally in your body. When you take steroid tablets, the higher amounts in your bloodstream stop your body from making its own supply. So if you stop taking your tablets suddenly, the level of steroids will very suddenly drop and this can be very harmful. Never just stop taking your tablets. You must cut them down gradually, with the help and advice of your doctor.

A brain tumour may be too advanced to respond well to treatment when it is first diagnosed. Or it may come back after treatment. In both these situations, it may continue growing and may make your symptoms worse. Steroids can help to keep symptoms under control for as long as possible.

 

Side effects

Steroids are important chemicals in the body and have a lot of different effects. So when you take steroid tablets, there are a lot of possible side effects. These include

  • Weight gain and water retention
  • Increased appetite
  • Sugar in your urine (diabetes), causing increased thirst, passing a lot of urine and if untreated, drowsiness and even unconsciousness
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Mood changes – high spirits or more rarely, paranoia, depression or hallucinations
  • A metallic taste in the mouth
  • An increased risk of infection
  • Hiding symptoms of infection (so that an infection becomes more severe before it is discovered)
  • Stomach irritation, which can lead to an ulcer – always take steroid tablets with food and ask your doctor or nurse for anti acid medicines if you need them
  • An acne type rash
  • Skin thinning, causing stretch marks
  • Flushing and night sweats
  • Muscle wasting with long term use
  • Bone thinning with long term use

Remember that steroids have important benefits too and you may only get a few of these side effects. The risks of harm from any of these side effects are slight compared to the good that they do.

Your side effects will disappear once you have finished your steroid treatment. There is a slight possibility of having permanent diabetes after long term treatment. Your doctors and nurses will watch out for this and will try to prevent it if at all possible.

 

More information about steroids

You can find out more about steroids and their side effects in the cancer treatment 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. They are happy to answer questions.

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