Radiation Therapy to the Brain
Types of Tumors Treated with Radiation
Brain tumors, both benign and malignant.
Metastatic brain lesions, these are cancers that start in another part of the body and spread to the brain.
Vestibular schwannomas or acoustic neuromas.
Before your Treatment
Before treatment can begin, you will need a facemask and a CAT (CT) scan. This process takes about 30 minutes.
The Face Mask
The facemask takes about 10-15 minutes to make. You lie back on the table with a head mold in place. A mesh film is placed across the top of your head, forehead, and nose, ending below your chin. The mesh is flexible plastic that is placed in warm water. As it molds to your face, it becomes stiff. The facemask will be molded to fit the contours of your eyes and your nose. It is important that the mask fit snugly around these features. The mask takes about 10-15 minutes to harden around your face. As it hardens you will feel the mask tighten slightly. It will not hurt, but you will notice it. We need to lightly press on your eyes and mold the mask to the bridge of your nose. If you are claustrophobic or afraid of being in confined spaces, please let us know.
The CAT (CT) Scan
If IV contrast is needed, an IV will have been placed before the facemask is made.
Right after the facemask is made, the CT scan will be done. About midway thru the CT scan, the contrast will be injected. Some people feel a warm flush or have a metal or strange taste in their mouth at that time. This is normal and will go away after the CT is finished.
If you have never had a CT scan before please let your nurse know so you can be given a handout that explains it. The scan is the final step before we can begin planning your treatment. If IV contrast is needed a blood test called a creatinine level may be done, before the CT, to make sure that your kidneys are working well. Your local doctor can do the test or it can be done here.
If you have an allergy to the CT contrast or are allergic to shellfish or iodine products please let your doctor or nurse know.
If you have diabetes and take oral medicines (specifically, Glucovance, metformin, Metaglip, Avandamet or Glucophage) or insulin to control your diabetes, please let your nurse or doctor know. You should NOT take this the day of your scan and for 48 hours after the injection of contrast. We may need to find a short-term plan to manage your blood sugars until you can resume this medicine. This may involve talking to your primary doctor.
Once the CT scan is finished, the mask will be removed. If you have an MRI after the CT, the IV will be left in; otherwise it will be removed at this time.
Remember: You should have nothing to eat or drink for four (4) hours before the CT scan, but once the MRI and CT are completed, we ask you to drink extra fluids that day to flush the dye out of your system.
You will be receiving 2 – 7 weeks of radiation treatments based on the type of tumor you have.
Your first treatment will take about 60 minutes. The therapists will position you on the treatment table and put marks on your facemask. The rest of your treatments will take bout 15 minutes, unless you are receiving TOMO Therapy or re-treatment radiation. Those treatments can take up to 60 minutes for each treatment. Your doctor will discuss the type of treatment you are receiving and how long it will take.
While you are having treatment you will see your doctor or nurse once a week to watch for the side effects. If you have questions at any time during your treatment, please let the therapist know and he or she will arrange for you to meet with a doctor. During the last week of treatment you will meet with your doctor to discuss follow-up care.
Most of the time there are few side effects. Some may appear shortly after starting treatment, while others may takes months or years to develop. The most common side effects are listed below.
Brain swelling/brain edema - patients may have brain swelling during treatment or weeks to months after treatment is over. If you develop swelling, you will be treated with a steroid medicine. If you have issues with brain swelling or are taking steroids, please ask your nurse of doctor for a handout (HFFY #6382) that has more information about the side effects of steroids.
Symptoms of brain swelling can vary based upon the location and type of tumor or lesion you have. A few of the more common things to watch for are listed below. If you have any of these, tell your doctor
- Increasing or severe headaches that are not relieved by Tylenol.
- Headaches that occur daily or several times a day, even if relieved by Tylenol.
- Headaches with nausea and vomiting.
- Nausea or vomiting.
- Any change in strength or sensation (numbness or tingling).
- Clumsiness or coordination problems of a hand or leg.
- Vision, hearing or speech changes or problems.
- Balance or walking problems or dizziness.
- New onset of confusion.
- New seizures or worsening of seizures.
Skin irritation – Red, dry skin, like a sunburn, may occur. While you are having treatments we will check your skin, give you a cream and talk with you about ways to protect and maintain your skin. Pay special attention to the tops of the ears or areas where hair loss has occurred.
Remember to keep your head covered when you are outside. You want to limit the sun exposure to the head as much as possible. The use of sunscreen is highly recommended.
Remember: Your skin needs to be clean and dry before each treatment. Moisturizers and creams should be applied 2 – 3 times per day, but only after the day’s treatment. If your treatment is late in the day, you may apply moisturizer before your treatment if it will be fully absorbed by the time your treatment is given.
Hair loss – hair loss can occur to the whole scalp (if you receive whole brain radiation) or in patches. Often, people notice hair loss starting around the second week of treatment. For most people hair will begin to re-grow about 3 months after radiation has been completed. It may come back thinner or a different texture than before and in some cases, hair loss may be permanent. Use a mild shampoo and avoid daily washing, hot rollers, curling irons etc., if possible.
You may consider using scarves, turbans or caps during and after your treatment. You can make an appointment with our specialists to discuss what options are available at 608-266-6025.
Fatigue (tiredness) – Fatigue does not mean that your tumor is getting worse; it is a side effect of treatment. Many find that they are able to carry on their normal routines with little problem. Some find that they begin to feel more tired about week three of treatment and near the end of treatments and may need to rest. Taking rest breaks is very important. You will need to listen to your body and rest as needed. For most people the fatigue begins to subside 2-6 weeks after radiation. Weight loss can make this worse. Many people find that rest and exercise can help with this symptom.
Taste Changes – Sometimes radiation can change how foods taste. This can be a side effect of radiation, and will improve after radiation is finished. Sometimes, the taste changes are because you have thrush. See the information below about thrush.
Thrush – You should inspect your tongue and the inside of your mouth daily. It should be pink and smooth. If you notice any red or white patches on your tongue or develop a “funny or strange” taste in your mouth, please let your doctor or nurse know. Sometimes a yeast infection (thrush) occurs. This will be treated with medicine.
Nausea and Nutritional Needs – Although rare, some patients may have nausea or vomiting during treatment. If you do, please let your doctor or nurse know, so medicines can be ordered for you. Nutrition is very important. Avoid alcohol and smoking. We do not want you to lose weight at this time. Try to eat three servings of protein and drink at least 6-8 glasses of water every day. Good eating and drinking habits will help lessen the side effects of treatment. If you have further questions about nutrition please discuss them with your nurse. A dietician can help with any questions or concerns.
Hearing Problems – Some people with tumors near the ear or those receiving whole brain radiation may develop hearing problems. These symptoms may be caused by earwax or excess skin shedding from the radiation. They usually go away after a time.
Changes in vision – Radiation given for tumors near the eye or tumors requiring whole brain radiation can produce eye irritation, causing tearing, redness, or dryness. These often go away. If the tumor is on or near the eye nerves, vision loss can occur and eye dryness may be permanent. In rare cases, some people can develop cataracts after radiation. Please discuss these issues with your doctor.
Other Concerns – A diagnosis of cancer brings concerns other than the need to manage the acute side effects of treatment. Often, it affects many other areas of your life. Patients and families feel its impact on their emotions, marriage, family life, jobs, finances, thoughts, and feelings about the future, and many other important areas of life. The nurses and social workers can help you cope with these issues. They can suggest support services and resources. Feel free to speak to them at any time
Your doctor will discuss the immediate and long-term risks of this treatment with you. The risks vary from patient to patient and depend on a number of factors.
Cancer Connect is a service of the UW Comprehensive Cancer Center. The staff can answer your questions about local treatments. Cancer Connect has knowledge of community resources and support services. The number is (608) 262-5223.
Cancer Information Service is a phone service of the National Cancer Institute. It is a resource for local cancer care as well as cancer care around the country. The toll free number is 1-800-4-CANCER (1-800-422-6237).
American Brain Tumor Association
ABTA is a complete source of information about brain tumors, treatment options, clinical trials, and living with a brain tumor. A variety of social work resources and services are also available.
National Brain Tumor Society
NBTS offers information about benign and malignant brain tumors, treatment centers, treatment options, the latest clinical trials and a survivors’ network
Madison Area Brain Tumor Support Group
All brain tumor survivors and their family or support persons are invited to share their brain tumor experiences in an effort to provide a supportive and educational experience.
Meetings take place at UW Hospital.
Questions or Concerns
While you are having treatments, you will see your doctor or nurse weekly. If you have any questions at any time during your treatments, please let the therapist working with you know and they will arrange for you to meet with your doctor.
If you have any questions or problems, please feel free to call the Radiotherapy Clinic at 608-263-8500. If the clinic is closed, your call will transfer to the hospital paging operator. Ask for the radiotherapy doctor on call. Leave your name and phone number with the area code. The doctor will call you back.
If you live outside of the area, call 1-800-323-8942
The information provided should not be used during any medical emergency or for the diagnosis or treatment of any medical condition. A licensed physician should be consulted for diagnosis and treatment of any and all medical conditions. Call 911 for all medical emergencies. Any duplication or distribution of the information contained herein is strictly prohibited.
Last Updated: 08/16/2011
Copyright © 08/15/2011 University of Wisconsin Hospitals and Clinics Authority. All rights reserved. Produced by the Department of Nursing. HF#4469
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