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.
For information about radiotherapy for children, visit our radiotherapy for children page.
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:
Read more about stereotactic radiotherapy, which uses computers and scanners to produce 3D images that very accurately locate a tumour within the brain and direct radiotherapy treatment towards it.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
Rapidly dividing cells include skin cells, cells lining the mouth and the digestive tract, plus blood cells in the bone marrow. These areas, therefore, tend to have the most common side-effects.
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.
Common side-effects of radiotherapy include:
These effects are usually temporary.
You are not radioactive after treatment and are safe to be around people, including children.
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.
The way radiotherapy is given is designed to limit the chance of permanent side-effects and very few people develop long-term difficulties. Some side-effects can develop later in life.
Such difficulties include:
Some side-effects can develop months or even years later.
However, the risks of having radiotherapy are far outweighed by the benefits.
Chemotherapy can be used as a treatment on its own, or it may be used with or after surgery or radiotherapy.
Steroids are sometimes given to help with symptoms as part of brain tumour treatment.
Find out more about the different brain tumour treatments available.
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Page last reviewed: 05/2018
Next review due: 05/2021
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