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There are many distinct types of brain tumors, each with its own spectrum of symptoms, treatment needs, and outcomes. Today, options for treating brain tumors, including radiation therapy, continue to advance. Throughout your cancer journey—from screening and diagnosis to treatment and survivorship—your medical care team is with you every step of the way.

Brain tumors can be benign (non-cancerous) or malignant (cancerous).

Treatment options for brain tumors include surgery, radiation therapy, and chemotherapy.

Worldwide, an estimated 308,102 people were diagnosed with a primary brain tumor in 2020.

Brain tumors

Your treatment plan

There are different treatment options for brain tumors. Your treatment plan will depend on several factors, including the type, location, and size of the tumor as well as your age and general health. Brain tumors can be benign (non-cancerous) or malignant (cancerous). Even if the tumor is benign, many patients experience symptoms if a brain tumor goes untreated. Brain tumors may also be primary, meaning the tumor is first formed in the brain, or metastatic, meaning cancer cells break away from a primary tumor and form new tumors in other parts of the body, such as the brain.

Historically, brain tumors have been treated first with surgery. In some instances, patients will undergo radiation therapy after surgery to reduce the risk of tumor progression. However, in many cases, surgery isn't possible because of the location of the tumor. With advances in radiation therapy and radiosurgery, patients now have options to have their tumors treated with radiation instead of undergoing an invasive surgery.

With radiation therapy, or radiotherapy, the whole brain may be given radiation, or only a limited area. Some patients may be eligible for radiosurgery, which is delivered with higher doses, typically in one to five treatment sessions. Some patients can be treated with radiotherapy first, and then radiosurgery, or either one alone.

Brain tumors

Radiation therapy treatment techniques

There are two primary radiation therapy treatment techniques for brain tumors:

Brain tumors

Possible side effects

Side effects are cumulative, which means they can develop over several weeks or months as the body responds to radiation. You can ask your radiation oncologist what you might expect from your specific treatment. Every patient’s treatment is different, but these are some common side effects of brain tumor radiation therapy:

  • Fatigue
  • Hair loss and scalp irritation
  • Muffled hearing
  • Vision changes
  • Short-term memory loss
  • Difficulty thinking

Brain tumors

Your EBRT treatment journey

When it comes to preparing for your brain tumor treatment, knowledge is power. That includes knowing what to expect during your treatment journey so you can move forward one informed and empowered step at a time. Here is a brief outline of what you can expect during external beam radiation treatment. The details of some steps may differ, depending on your particular case.

Step 1: Consultation

First, you'll meet with your radiation oncologist to discuss what type of radiation treatment options are recommended for your specific case, and make a decision together about your treatment.

Step 2: Simulation

As part of your treatment planning, the exact area of the tumor must first be determined. This is usually done using a CT scan, short for computed tomography, providing a detailed 3-D image of the treatment area using x-rays. Sometimes temporary skin marks or even tiny tattoos (about the size of a freckle) are made on your body to help the radiation therapist position you correctly each day for treatment.

For brain tumors, it is very important that you are correctly positioned for treatment. To that end, an immobilization device or customized face mask may be used to help keep your head still while you are lying on the treatment couch.

Step 3: Treatment planning

After simulation is complete, your radiation oncologist will develop your personalized treatment plan, taking into account the location and type of cancer you have, your medical history, lab tests, and other factors—all to determine your best course of treatment.Typical treatment with radiation therapy will require you to come for treatment five days a week.

Step 4: Positioning for treatment

On your treatment days, your radiation therapist will position you on the radiation machine’s treatment couch. The couch will be adjusted so the radiation laser targets the small mark that was put on your skin during your simulation, ensuring you are properly aligned for treatment. If a face mask or other device was created for you during the imaging process, it will be placed on you or under you at this time.

Step 5: Start of treatment

The radiation is delivered by a machine called a linear accelerator, or linac. Most linacs have a gantry, which will move around you to deliver the radiation. You won't see, hear, feel, or smell the beam. Treatment sessions usually take approximately 15 minutes. Your first treatment session may be a little longer.

Step 6: Post-treatment and follow-up care

Every patient is different, but most patients can continue daily activities during treatment, despite side effects. After your final treatment, your radiation oncologist will schedule periodic follow-up appointments to monitor your progress and the results of your treatment.

Brain tumors

Helpful resources for brain tumors

Questions to ask

Some important things you may want to find out from your doctor before undergoing treatment for brain tumors.