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Radiation for a Brain Tumor

The goal of radiation therapy is to slow or control tumor growth. In some cases, it may fully destroy a tumor. It uses painless radioactive rays or particles to destroy tumor cells. Radiation therapy can be used alone. Or it can be used along with other types of treatment. For example, you may also have surgery or chemotherapy. If your healthcare provider advises radiation therapy for you, you may have one of the below.

External beam radiation

This type of radiation comes from a large machine. It moves around you and aims the radiation at the tumor. External beam radiation is the most common type of radiation used for brain tumors. There are several types:

  • 3-D conformal radiation therapy (3DCRT). This treatment sends radiation beams from many angles to copy the shape of the tumor. This helps to reduce damage to nearby tissues.

  • Intensity modulated radiation therapy (IMRT). This uses a machine controlled by a computer. The machine moves around your head as it sends radiation into your body. The angles and strength of the radiation beams change to fit the shape of the tumor.

  • Whole brain radiation. This is used to treat the entire brain. It may be needed if you have more than one tumor. Or it may be used if cancer has spread through the brain or is in the cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) around the brain.

  • Stereotactic radiosurgery. There's no surgery or cutting with this treatment. It's done with a high dose of radiation that's aimed right at the tumor from many angles. It may be given in one high dose or as a few lower doses. Since it's very focused and precise, the normal tissue around the tumor gets little or no radiation. The machines used for this treatment might be called Gamma Knife, X-Knife, or CyberKnife.

  • Proton therapy. This type of radiation is mostly used for certain types of brain tumors, such as pituitary tumors or tumors in children. Instead of X-rays or photons, it uses protons to destroy the tumors. Proton energy is released at the end of the beam. This cause less damage to the tissues the beam passes through to get to the tumor, so normal tissue is spared.

Internal radiation (brachytherapy)

This type of radiation is seldom used for brain tumors. The source of radiation is put right into or near the tumor. Small radioactive seeds are put in during surgery. The radiation only travels a short distance, so damage to nearby tissue is reduced. Stronger seeds may be removed after a few minutes or after a few days. Weaker seeds may be left in. They become inactive over time.

Side effects of radiation therapy

Side effects tend to show up a few weeks after starting radiation therapy. They vary depending on factors such as:

  • Type and strength of radiation used

  • Tumor type

  • Tumor size

  • Where the tumor is

Short-term side effects can include:

  • Brain and tumor swelling

  • Fatigue

  • Nausea

  • Vomiting

  • Infection

  • Dizziness

  • Headache

  • Seizures

  • Hair loss

  • Hearing loss

  • Skin changes in the treated area

Long-term side effects can include:

  • Memory loss

  • Trouble thinking

  • Personality changes

  • Permanent hair loss in the treated area

  • Hormonal changes

  • Death of nearby tissue (necrosis)

Online Medical Reviewer: Kimberly Stump-Sutliff RN MSN AOCNS
Online Medical Reviewer: Louise Cunningham RN BSN
Online Medical Reviewer: Luc Jasmin MD
Date Last Reviewed: 6/1/2020
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