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Brain Cancer: Treatments

Treatments for brain tumors can include surgery, radiation therapy and chemotherapy.

Surgery

Surgery is usually the first line of treatment for most types of brain tumors. The surgical process is known as craniotomy. Your surgeon will make an incision in your scalp, and then remove a small piece of bone from the skull.

You may stay awake for part or all of your surgery. To help the surgeon protect important parts of the brain during the procedure, he or she may ask you to perform simple commands, such as moving a limb, saying the alphabet or telling a story. When finished, the surgeon will cover the skull opening with a small piece of bone, or metal or fabric, and close the incision of the scalp.

Sometimes, the surgeon may not be able to remove all of the tumor without harming other healthy areas of the brain. In these cases, additional radiation therapy or chemotherapy is needed.

Radiation Therapy

Radiation therapy, or radiotherapy, refers to carefully aimed doses of radiation, or high energy x-rays, intended to kill cancer cells. If you need radiation therapy, you will be asked to see a specialist called a radiation oncologist. Like surgery, radiation therapy only kills cancer cells directly in the path of the radiation beam. It also damages the normal cells caught in its path, and for this reason, it cannot be used to treat large areas of the body. Depending on the size and location of the brain tumor, the radiation may be aimed at an area of the brain, the entire brain, or aimed at the spinal cord also.

Chemotherapy

Chemotherapy refers to the use of drugs to kill cancer cells throughout the body. Chemotherapy is given by a medical oncologist.

Most chemotherapy used for brain tumors is given by mouth or vein (intravenously), and often during or after radiation therapy. The drugs enter the bloodstream and then travel throughout the body. These drugs can be administered as an outpatient in a hospital, at your doctor's office or at home. Rarely is a hospital stay required. 

In some adults with high-grade glioma, your doctor may elect to insert wafers into the brain. Roughly the size of a dime, the wafers will dissolve over a period of several weeks, releasing the chemotherapy drugs into the brain. These drugs help kill the cancer, and also may prevent the tumor from reappearing after surgery.

Last updated: 5/19/2010 3:47:48 PM