Radiation therapy is a common treatment for brain cancer. While it can effectively target and destroy cancer cells, it can also cause side effects. The side effects of radiation therapy for brain cancer vary depending on the location and dose of radiation and other individual factors.
Radiation therapy for brain cancer is a treatment approach that involves using high-energy radiation to target and destroy cancer cells in the brain.
This article looks at the different side effects that may occur from radiation therapy on the brain and how to reduce and manage them.
According to the
- hair loss
- nausea and vomiting
- skin changes
- cognitive problems, such as trouble with memory and speech
Some of these side effects, including seizures and headaches, can be a sign that the brain has swollen. This is considered a medical emergency.
Early side effects
Early side effects manifest during or within
The primary early side effects include fatigue and skin changes.
Late side effects
Radiation to the brain can lead to late side effects that may emerge anywhere from
Additionally, there is a possibility of an increased risk of developing another tumor in the treated area, although this occurrence is uncommon.
Getting plenty of rest, conserving energy, and engaging in light physical activity is important. Adequate nutrition and hydration are also essential.
A person should speak with their healthcare team if they:
- feel very fatigued
- cannot perform their usual activities
- feel very tired, even after resting and sleeping
To help combat fatigue, a person can:
- try to make a plan that balances activity and rest
- choose activities that are relaxing
- plan times to rest
- eat a balanced diet
- stay hydrated
Radiation to the head may cause temporary hair loss. This can include the eyebrows and eyelashes.
Hair loss typically occurs 2–3 weeks after beginning treatment.
Managing hair loss
It may not be possible to prevent hair loss during radiation therapy.
However, according to the ACS, hair usually grows back within
In the meantime, a person can:
- wear a wig or comfortable scarf
- use sunscreen on their scalp and wear a hat when outside
- apply lotions and conditions, if the scalp feels itchy
A person may develop radiation dermatitis. The skin at the radiation site may become inflamed, dry, or itchy.
These symptoms typically occur
Managing skin changes
This may include using mild, non-irritating soaps and moisturizers, avoiding exposure to extreme temperatures, and protecting the treated area from the sun.
The American Academy of Dermatology Association (AAD) notes that people should:
- wash the skin very gently using warm water
- apply a gentle, low-pH cleanser, if necessary
- avoid using sponges, washcloths, and loofahs
- avoid shaving the area
- apply moisturizer every day
Before applying any lotions or creams, a person should consult with their healthcare team.
Although nausea and vomiting are common when the treatment involves the stomach, it can also be a general side effect regardless of the treatment area.
Radiation therapy may cause nausea and vomiting in 50–80% of people. People may also experience a loss of appetite.
Radiation sickness typically resolves a few weeks after a person has finished treatment.
Managing nausea and vomiting
Eating small, frequent meals and avoiding greasy or spicy foods may also help.
Some individuals may experience cognitive changes, such as difficulty with memory, attention, or problem-solving.
Radiation therapy can damage the brain cells. These changes may appear years after the treatment.
Managing cognitive changes
If a person experiences cognitive changes, such as difficulty with memory or concentration, some strategies can help.
Breaking tasks into smaller, manageable steps, using reminders or organizational tools, and engaging in mental exercises or puzzles can all help.
Radiation therapy may cause temporary headaches. The headaches may be
Over-the-counter pain medications may provide relief, but it is essential to consult the healthcare team before taking any medication.
Brain tumors and radiation therapy can both
A person should speak with a healthcare team if they experience seizures. This is because they can be a sign of brain swelling.
Doctors can prescribe medications called anticonvulsants to prevent seizures or manage them if they occur.
Cancer Research UK notes that radiation therapy can cause short-term swelling, raising the pressure in the brain.
A person may experience:
Brain swelling can develop over days or weeks.
Although a person
Treating brain swelling
Doctors can treat brain swelling using corticosteroids. If a person is unable to take steroids, a doctor may administer a drug called bevacizumab.
Both stereotactic radiotherapy and radiosurgery are specialized forms of radiation therapy that deliver high-dose radiation to specific targets.
Stereotactic radiotherapy and radiosurgery are generally associated with fewer side effects than standard radiation therapy. This is due to their highly targeted nature, which helps spare the surrounding healthy tissues.
Stereotactic radiotherapy and radiosurgery can cause specific side effects depending on the treatment location though. For example, when used for brain tumors, they can result in edema in the surrounding brain tissue.
The Canadian Cancer Society notes that a person can experience side effects at any time during treatment.
Most side effects resolve after a person finishes treatment. This can take a few weeks to 2 months. Other side effects may continue for longer while the healthy cells recover.
Late side effects may resolve over time. However, others may be permanent.
To reduce and manage the side effects, people can discuss their symptoms with their healthcare team, who may be able to offer advice and guidance.
People can manage their side effects by:
- engaging in regular exercise, if possible, but they should avoid starting a new, rigorous training program without first consulting their healthcare team
- prioritizing resting
- seeking support from friends and family
- limiting alcohol, tobacco, and caffeine
- drinking plenty of fluids
- eating a balanced and healthy diet
- working with a dietician to create a meal plan, if appetite is an issue
Radiation therapy for brain cancer can lead to side effects depending on the specific treatment technique used and individual factors. Late side effects may also occur months or years after treatment.
However, advances in treatment planning and precision techniques, such as stereotactic radiotherapy and radiosurgery, have helped minimize side effects compared to standard radiation therapy.
People need to discuss potential side effects with their healthcare team, as they can provide personalized information, support, and management strategies to optimize their treatment experience.