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Radiotherapy for adult brain tumours

If you have been diagnosed with a brain tumour, there are a variety of possible treatment options. One of these is radiotherapy. It may be used on its own, or in conjunction with other treatment options, such as neurosurgery or chemotherapy.

What is radiotherapy?

Radiotherapy uses controlled doses of invisible, high energy beams of charged particles to destroy tumour cells whilst causing as little damage as possible to surrounding cells.

It may be used:

  • where surgery isn't possible
  • after surgery to kill any remaining tumour cells
  • to prevent a tumour from returning
  • to slow down the growth of the tumour.

Before radiotherapy treatment

Planning your radiotherapy

Your radiotherapy is very carefully planned by a team of medical specialists to ensure that it reaches and destroys as many of the tumour cells as possible, whilst damaging as little of the healthy tissue as possible.

As part of the planning, you may have several scans. The image and measurements from the scan help the team create a 3D image showing the precise location and shape of the tumour. This allows the tumour to be targeted more precisely.

The scans also help your health team plan how your treatment should be staged. This means how many sessions of radiotherapy you'll need and how much radiation to give at each session. This is important as it makes sure the normal cells have time to recover before the next dose of radiation.

Treatment mask

To make sure the radiotherapy is directed to the correct part of your brain, it's important that you stay very still during the treatment. To help you do this, a tailor-made treatment mask holds your head in position each time you have treatment.

There are different types of mask made from different materials, but you can breathe easily in them, though some people do find wearing it claustrophobic. 

Images reproduced with the kind permission of Cambridge University Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust.

What happens during radiotherapy treatment?

During treatment you will lie on a treatment couch wearing your mask, which will be attached to the couch. The radiographer will take a few minutes making sure you are positioned correctly, then will leave the room. They can see and hear you throughout the treatment. You can also hear and speak to them.

Some radiotherapy machines move around you during treatment; others will look more like a CT scanner. See our Scans for adults page.

How long does radiotherapy take?

Each treatment is called a 'fraction'. Each fraction can be between a few seconds to a few minutes. Your appointment, however, will be considerably longer, as medical staff will take time making sure you're in the right place.

The period of time over which your radiotherapy is spread varies from person to person, but it's common for it to last for around 4-6 weeks.

An example of a typical radiotherapy plan is treatment once a day, Monday to Friday, with a break at the weekends.

Before the treatment begins, your medical team will be able to tell you how many sessions you'll need, how often and over what period. They'll also be able to give you a guideline for how long each visit to the hospital should take.

Why is the treatment given in several small doses rather than one dose?

The full dosage of radiation is carefully calculated, depending partly on the size, type and location of the tumour. It is then divided into fractions for two reasons:

  • The sensitivity of a cell to radiation depends on where it is in its growth cycle. By giving radiotherapy in several doses, it makes sure that the tumour cells will receive radiation whenever they are in their most sensitive stage
  • To allow healthy cells to recover between treatments. Cells that grow and divide quickly (tumour cells) are much more sensitive to radiation than non-dividing, resting, normal cells. Having a gap between doses gives the normal cells time to recover while still causing damage to the tumour cells.

Will the treatment be painful?

No, you can't feel radiotherapy nor is there any heat from it. The machine can be quite noisy though.

Will I need to stay in hospital for radiotherapy treatment?

Generally, you'll be given radiotherapy as an outpatient, which means going into the hospital for each fraction, after which you can go home.

A stay might be needed if you are also receiving chemotherapy, or if you are unwell.

What happens after radiotherapy treatment?

Following treatment, you'll have regular check-up appointments to monitor the effects of the radiotherapy on your tumour and any side-effects you may get.

Are there any side-effects?

It is likely that you will experience some side-effects. Most will be temporary and gradually fade, usually within 6 - 12 weeks after treatment has finished.

Read more about the short and longer term  side effects of radiotherapy.

Will I need to give up work?

It is likely that you will have to take some time off work during treatment and for a short time afterwards. Side-effects, such as tiredness and nausea, may mean you need a longer period of time off work.

Our Employment resources provide help and information on how to approach your employer about your diagnosis and how they can support you through this time.

If radiotherapy doesn’t work

Although treatment plans are carefully developed by healthcare professionals to be as effective as possible while having the fewest risks or side-effects, sometimes radiotherapy may not work. This can be worrying, but just because one treatment hasn’t worked, it doesn’t mean others won’t.

Find out more about what happens when treatment doesn’t work.

If you have further questions, need to clarify any of the information on this page, or want to find out more about research and clinical trials, please contact our team:

Information and Support line

0808 800 0004 (free from landlines and mobiles)

support@thebraintumourcharity.org

Phone lines open Mon-Fri, 09:00-17:00

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