People with brain tumors have several treatment options. Depending on the tumor type and stage, patients may be treated with surgery, radiation therapy, or chemotherapy. Some patients receive a combination of treatments.
In addition, at any stage of disease, patients may have treatment to control pain and other symptoms of the cancer, to relieve the side effects of therapy, and to ease emotional problems. This kind of treatment is called symptom management, supportive care, or palliative care.
The doctor is the best person to describe the treatment choices and discuss the expected results.
A patient may want to talk to the doctor about taking part in a clinical trial, which is a research study of new treatment methods. The section on “The Promise of Cancer Research” has more information about clinical trials.
Surgery is the usual treatment for most brain tumors. Surgery to open the skull is called a craniotomy. It is performed under general anesthesia. Before surgery begins, the scalp is shaved. The surgeon then makes an incision in the scalp and uses a special type of saw to remove a piece of bone from the skull. After removing part or all of the tumor, the surgeon covers the opening in the skull with that piece of bone or with a piece of metal or fabric. The surgeon then closes the incision in the scalp.
These are some questions a person may want to ask the doctor before having surgery:
- How will I feel after the operation?
- What will you do for me if I have pain?
- How long will I be in the hospital?
- Will I have any long-term effects? Will my hair grow back? Are there any side effects from using metal or fabric to replace the bone in the skull?
- When can I get back to my normal activities?
- What is my chance of a full recovery?
Sometimes surgery is not possible. If the tumor is in the brain stem or certain other areas, the surgeon may not be able to remove the tumor without damaging normal brain tissue. Patients who cannot have surgery may receive radiation or other treatment.
Radiation therapy (also called radiotherapy) uses high-energy rays to kill tumor cells. The radiation may come from x-rays, gamma rays, or protons. A large machine aims radiation at the tumor and the tissue close to it. Sometimes the radiation may be directed to the entire brain or to the spinal cord.
Radiation therapy usually follows surgery. The radiation kills tumor cells that may remain in the area. Sometimes, patients who cannot have surgery have radiation therapy instead.
The patient goes to a hospital or clinic for radiation therapy. The treatment schedule depends on the type and size of the tumor and the age of the patient. Each treatment lasts only a few minutes.
Doctors take steps to protect the healthy tissue around the brain tumor:
- Fractionation – Radiation therapy usually is given five days a week for several weeks. Giving the total dose of radiation over an extended period helps to protect healthy tissue in the area of the tumor.
- Hyperfractionation – The patient gets smaller doses of radiation two or three times a day instead of a larger amount once a day.
- Stereotactic radiation therapy – Narrow beams of radiation are directed at the tumor from different angles. For this procedure, the patient wears a rigid head frame. An MRI or CT scan creates pictures of the tumor’s exact location. The doctor uses a computer to decide on the dose of radiation needed, as well as the sizes and angles of the radiation beams. The therapy may be given during a single visit or over several visits.
- 3-dimensional conformal radiation therapy – A computer creates a 3-dimensional image of the tumor and nearby brain tissue. The doctor aims multiple radiation beams to the exact shape of the tumor. The precise focus of the radiation beams protects normal brain tissue.
- Proton beam radiation therapy – The source of radiation is protons rather than x-rays. The doctor aims the proton beams at the tumor. Protons can pass through healthy tissue without damaging it.
These are some questions a person may want to ask the doctor before having radiation therapy:
- Why do I need this treatment?
- When will the treatments begin? When will they end?
- How will I feel during therapy? Are there side effects?
- What can I do to take care of myself during therapy?
- How will we know if the radiation is working?
- Will I be able to continue my normal activities during treatment?
Chemotherapy, the use of drugs to kill cancer cells, is sometimes used to treat brain tumors. The drugs may be given by mouth or by injection. Either way, the drugs enter the bloodstream and travel throughout the body. The drugs are usually given in cycles so that a recovery period follows each treatment period.
Chemotherapy may be given in an outpatient part of the hospital, at the doctor’s office, or at home. Rarely, the patient may need to stay in the hospital.
Children are more likely than adults to have chemotherapy. However, adults may have chemotherapy after surgery and radiation therapy.
For some patients with recurrent cancer of the brain, the surgeon removes the tumor and implants several wafers that contain chemotherapy. Each wafer is about the size of a dime. Over several weeks, the wafers dissolve, releasing the drug into the brain. The drug kills cancer cells.
Patients may want to ask these questions about chemotherapy:
- Why do I need this treatment?
- What will it do?
- Will I have side effects? What can I do about them?
- When will treatment start? When will it end?
- How often will I need checkups?