Radiotherapy for adults with a brain tumour

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.

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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.

For information about radiotherapy for children, visit our radiotherapy for children page.

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.

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 ensures 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)

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.

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Side effects of radiotherapy

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

Radiotherapy works because it does the greatest damage to rapidly dividing cells, such as tumour cells. However, it can also affect any normal cells within the treatment area, particularly those which also divide rapidly such as skin cells, cells lining the mouth and digestive tract, plus blood cells in the bone marrow.

Side-effects will depend on the dose and length of treatment you have, and will differ according to the area of the brain that has received radiotherapy.

You are not radioactive after treatment and are safe to be around people, including children.

Common side effects of radiotherapy

  • tiredness
  • hair loss
  • skin sensitivity – take care in the sun
  • feeling nauseous or reduced appetite
  • worsening of symptoms - due to temporary swelling in the treatment area
  • increased risk of infection, bruising and nosebleeds - caused by a slowing of blood cell production.

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Our FREE Brain Tumour Information Pack has been designed to help you through this difficult time, to guide you through the healthcare system, answer your questions, and reassure you that you're not alone so that you feel confident when discussing treatment and care options with your medical team.

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