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What are the side-effects of radiotherapy when used to treat children with a brain tumour?

Although radiotherapy is rarely used to treat young children, it can be a very effective treatment. It uses controlled and targeted doses of high energy beams of charged particles to destroy the tumour cells, whilst causing as little damage as possible to surrounding healthy cells.

What happens when my child is given radiotherapy?

Before your child is given radiotherapy treatment, a lot of planning and preparation is needed. This is to make sure the treatment is as effective as possible whilst minimising the side-effects.

What are the side-effects of radiotherapy?

These will partly depend on the area of the brain where the radiotherapy is directed, and what that area controls. Also radiotherapy works best on rapidly dividing cells, such as tumour cells, but some normal cells in the treatment area also divide rapidly, so these areas tend to have the most common side-effects. These include hair and skin cells.

Although it is likely your child will experience some side-effects after having radiotherapy, most will be temporary and gradually fade - usually within 6-12 weeks after treatment has finished.

Common short-term side effects

  • tiredness
  • hair loss
  • skin sensitivity, particularly on the scalp
  • feeling nauseous
  • reduced appetite
  • increased risk of infection, anaemia, bruising and nosebleeds.

Potential long-term side-effects

Unfortunately, because a child's central nervous system (CNS) is still developing, radiotherapy can cause some long-term or delayed side-effects. These will depend on which areas of the brain have been included in the treatment area, but can include affect:

  • brain development and cognitive skills
  • emotional difficulties
  • growth and development
  • puberty.

Other possible long-term side-effects include cataracts, heart conditions and increased risk of developing a second tumour.

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