Understanding Brain Cancer: Radiation Therapy

Radiation therapy destroys brain tumors cells through high-energy X-rays, gamma rays or protons. Usually radiation is done after surgery. Radiation destroys the tumor cells that the surgery didn’t get. Or, some people who can’t have surgery have radiation instead.

There are 2 different kinds of radiation therapy to treat brain tumors:

External Radiation Therapy

You will go to a hospital or clinic to receive this type of radiation. Here’s what to expect. A large machine directs beams of radiation at your head. The radiation might be directed just to the tumor or to your whole head. The treatment schedule depends on:

  • Your age
  • Type and size of the tumor

Your doctor will probably want to spread the total dose of radiation out over several weeks. This helps protect healthy tissue near the tumor. Often treatments are 5 days a week for several weeks. Each treatment only takes a few minutes.

There are some specific ways of delivering external beam radiation therapy:

  • Intensity-modulated radiation therapy. This is also called 3-dimensional conformal radiation therapy. This type of radiation uses computers to better target the brain tumor. This reduces the potential damage to healthy tissue.
  • Proton beam radiation therapy. This procedure uses protons instead of X-rays. The doctor directs the proton beam at the brain tumor. The advantage to this procedure is that the amount of radiation to normal tissue is less than with a regular X-ray beam.
  • Stereotactic radiation therapy. In this procedure, narrow beams of X-rays or gamma rays are directed at the tumor. These beams come from different angles. This procedure requires you to wear a rigid head frame. The therapy can take place during one visit or over several visits.

Internal Radiation Therapy

This is also called implant radiation therapy or brachytherapy. This therapy is not commonly used for treating brain tumors. The procedure involves using radioactive material placed inside your brain either temporarily (days) or permanently.

What kinds of side effects can I expect from radiation?

Side Effects of Radiation

Many people have very few, if any, side effects after radiation. People who do have side effects report problems with:

  • Nausea
  • Fatigue
  • Hair loss where the radiation was directed.
  • Swelling of brain tissue. A headache or feeling of pressure may indicate this swelling. Medicine can be given to reduce the swelling.
  • Harm to the pituitary gland and other areas of the brain.

You may want to ask your doctor these questions before having radiation:

  • 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?

Radiation is often used together with chemotherapy.

Return to list of treatment options. 

Back to “Understanding Brain Cancer: An Introduction”