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Steroids are hormones that are produced naturally in our bodies in small amounts. They help to control various functions, such as inflammation (swelling) when our body is injured.
Sometimes our bodies don't produce enough steroids to reduce the swelling. Fortunately, steroids can also be created in a laboratory for medical purposes, and given to reduce the swelling in these cases.
The steroids used during brain tumour treatment are NOT anabolic steroids, which are used by some athletes to build muscle.
Swelling around a brain tumour can be caused by surgery or radiotherapy that may be part of your treatment. This can put pressure on surrounding tissues and cause symptoms such as headaches, sickness and seizures (fits). You may be given steroids to reduce the swelling, and so relieve those symptoms.
You may be given a low dosage of steroids if you are having chemotherapy or radiotherapy and experiencing nausea. They are also used to protect the brain at the time of surgery.
Steroids, therefore, help with symptom management rather than treating the tumour itself.
The steroid most commonly used with brain tumours is dexamethasone, as this is useful in treating swelling in the brain. As steroids are fast-acting drugs, the effects caused by the tumour could reduce quite quickly.
After taking steroids for a few days, your body will start to produce less of its own natural steroids. To allow for this, when taking you off steroids, your specialist is likely to reduce your dosage gradually to allow your body to start producing steroids naturally again. Stopping steroids suddenly can make you unwell, so please follow the advice of your specialist. Read more about the side-effects of steroids.
Steroids can be taken:
Steroids are usually given in short courses of a few days or a few weeks. Keep taking your steroids for as long as your specialist tells you to.
If you have to take them for longer than a week, you are likely to be given a steroid card. It has important information about the type of steroid and the dosage that may be needed in an emergency or if you need to have medical treatment. Carry it with you at all times - your doctor may advise you to carry it for up to a year after completion of your steroid treatment.
You should, of course, make every effort to remember to take your steroids when you are required to. It might help to leave yourself a note or set an alarm to remind you. Getting into a routine of when you take your steroids is also helpful.
If you do miss a dose though, don't try to compensate by taking a double dose next time. Speak to your health team to see what they advise.
Although treatment plans are carefully developed by healthcare professionals to be as effective as possible while having the fewest risks or side-effects, sometimes steroids might 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.
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