Chemotherapy for children

Chemotherapy is one way your child may be treated for a brain tumour. Chemotherapy uses drugs to destroy tumour cells by interrupting or stopping their growth. Chemotherapy can be used on its own, with radiotherapy, or it may be used before or after surgery.

How chemotherapy works

Our bodies are made up of cells that divide to reproduce and repair themselves. Cytotoxic drugs used in chemotherapy disturb the dividing process of both tumour cells and healthy cells. Healthy cells are better able to repair themselves, whilst tumour cells are more likely to die.

Why is chemotherapy given?

Depending on your child's type of brain tumour, their age, and general health, chemotherapy may be given:

  • Before surgery - to shrink a tumour to make it easier to operate on
  • After surgery - to prevent a tumour from returning
  • To treat a tumour that has returned
  • To shrink a tumour that cannot be operated on
  • To prevent further growth of a tumour
  • Prior to radiotherapy.

How is treatment given?

Your child may be given chemotherapy in one of a number of ways:

By injection or drip into a vein (intravenously)

This is the usual method and may be given via a central line, a PICC line or a portacath. The type of 'line' your child has will depend on factors, such as your child's age and tumour type. The line is put in under general anaesthetic and stays in place until your child's chemotherapy treatment has finished. You will be taught by your child's health team how to care for the line.

As tablets or liquid to be swallowed (orally)

This is a less common method.

How long will chemotherapy last?

Your child's health team will plan and tailor your child's treatment based on the type of tumour your child has, your child's age, the amount of tumour removed (where relevant), and your child's general health.

It could vary from daily chemotherapy for a while, to several days on a ward every few weeks.

These cycles of treatment can be given over 3 months to 12 months, or even longer.

Will my child need to stay in hospital?

Chemotherapy is often given as an outpatient treatment, which means that your child won't usually have to stay in hospital overnight.

What side-effects might my child have?

Side-effects vary from child to child and according to the drugs they have been given. As chemotherapy temporarily acts on healthy cells as well as tumour cells, it may cause some unpleasant, short-term side-effects, commonly including:

  • Lowered immunity

This means your child may become more likely to get infections. Precautions can be taken to deal with this increased risk. You should also check which immunisations are safe to give your child at this time.

  • Anaemia (and tiredness)

Symptoms include extreme tiredness, shortness of breath and looking 'washed out' or pale. The tiredness will wear off once treatment has finished, but it may take a few months for their energy levels to return to normal.

  • Nausea

Your child may feel sick (nausea) or be sick (vomit) after treatment. Not all chemotherapy drugs have this effect. Anti-sickness tablets or liquid medicine can be given.

  • Hair Loss

Not all chemotherapy causes hair loss - it depends on which chemotherapy drugs your child has. It is usually temporary, but the hair may grow back differently to how it was before.

  • Sore mouth (oral mucositis)

Inflammation of the inside of the mouth is a possible side-effect that is more likely with high doses. This condition can cause mouth ulcers or a sensation similar to when you burn your mouth from eating or drinking something too hot.

  • Effects on skin

Your child's skin may become more sensitive (for example, to the sun and to chlorine) with chemotherapy drugs, or they may develop rashes or changes in skin colour. Take care in the sun or in swimming pools.

  • Taste, appetite and digestion

Sometimes, chemotherapy causes changes to taste and appetite. It can also cause diarrhoea or constipation.

  • Future fertility

Some chemotherapy drugs may cause temporary or permanent infertility (an inability to have children). It is very important to discuss any effects on your child's fertility with your child's health team before they start treatment. Boys who have been through puberty will be offered sperm banking.

How will we know if chemotherapy has worked?

During and after treatment, your child will be monitored using scans to check how well the treatment is working, e.g. for any changes to their tumour.

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