Because treatment may damage healthy cells and tissues, unwanted side effects are common. These side effects depend on many factors, including the location of the tumor and the type and extent of the treatment. Side effects may not be the same for each person, and they may even change from one treatment session to the next. Before treatment starts, the health care team will explain possible side effects and suggest ways to help the patient manage them.
Patients often have a headache or are uncomfortable for the first few days after surgery. However, medicine can usually control their pain. Patients should feel free to discuss pain relief with the doctor or nurse.
It is also common for patients to feel tired or weak. The length of time it takes to recover from an operation varies for each patient.
Other, less common, problems may occur. Cerebrospinal fluid or blood may build up in the brain. This swelling is called edema. The health care team monitors the patient for signs of these problems. The patient may receive steroids to help relieve swelling. A second surgery may be needed to drain the fluid.
The surgeon may place a long, thin tube (shunt) in a ventricle of the brain. The tube is threaded under the skin to another part of the body, usually the abdomen. Excess fluid is carried from the brain and drained into the abdomen. Sometimes the fluid is drained into the heart instead.
Infection is another problem that may develop after surgery. If this happens, the health care team gives the patient an antibiotic.
Brain surgery may damage normal tissue. Brain damage can be a serious problem. The patient may have problems thinking, seeing, or speaking. The patient also may have personality changes or seizures. Most of these problems lessen or disappear with time. But sometimes damage to the brain is permanent. The patient may need physical therapy, speech therapy, or occupational therapy.
Some patients have nausea for several hours after treatment. The health care team can suggest ways to help patients cope with this problem. Radiation therapy also may cause patients to become very tired as treatment continues. Resting is important, but doctors usually advise patients to try to stay as active as they can.
In addition, radiation therapy commonly causes hair loss. Hair usually grows back within a few months. Radiation therapy also may affect the skin in the treated area. The scalp and ears may become red, dry, and tender. The health care team can suggest ways to relieve these problems.
Sometimes radiation therapy causes brain tissue to swell. Patients may get a headache or feel pressure. The health care team watches for signs of this problem. They can provide medicine to reduce the discomfort.
Radiation sometimes kills healthy brain tissue. This side effect is called radiation necrosis. Necrosis can cause headaches, seizures, or even the patient’s death.
In children, radiation may damage the pituitary gland and other areas of the brain. This could cause learning problems or slow down growth and development. In addition, radiation during childhood increases the risk of secondary tumors later in life. Researchers are studying whether chemotherapy may be used instead of radiation therapy in young children with brain tumors.
Side effects may be worse if chemotherapy and radiation therapy are given at the same time. The doctor can suggest ways to ease these problems.
The side effects of chemotherapy depend mainly on the drugs that are used. The most common side effects include fever and chills, nausea and vomiting, loss of appetite, and weakness. Some side effects may be relieved with medicine.
Patients who receive an implant (a wafer) that contains a drug are monitored by the health care team for signs of infection after surgery. An infection can be treated with an antibiotic.
At any stage of disease, people with brain tumors receive supportive care to prevent or control problems and to improve their comfort and quality of life during treatment. Patients may have treatment to control pain and other symptoms of a brain tumor, to relieve the side effects of therapy, and to ease emotional problems.
These are common types of supportive care for people with brain tumors:
- Steroids – Most patients with brain tumors need steroids to help relieve swelling of the brain.
- Anticonvulsant medicine – Brain tumors can cause seizures. Patients may take an anticonvulsant medicine to prevent or control seizures.
- Shunt – If fluid builds up in the brain, the surgeon may place a shunt to drain the fluid. Information about shunts is under “Surgery” in the “Side Effects” section.
Many people with brain tumors receive supportive care along with treatments intended to slow the progress of the disease. Some decide not to have antitumor treatment and receive only supportive care to manage their symptoms.