Many people with brain tumors want to take an active part in making decisions about their medical care. They want to learn all they can about their disease and their treatment choices available to treat their brain cancer. However, shock and stress after a diagnosis of a brain tumor can make it hard to think of everything to ask the doctor. It often helps to make a list of questions before an appointment. To help remember what the doctor says, patients may take notes or ask whether they may use a tape recorder. Some brain cancer patients also want to have a family member or friend with them when they talk to the doctor—to take part in the discussion, to take notes, or just to listen.
The doctor may refer the brain cancer patient to a specialist, or the patient may ask for a referral. Specialists who treat brain tumors include neurosurgeons, neurooncologists, medical oncologists, and radiation oncologists. The patient may be referred to other health care professionals who work together as a team. The medical team may include a nurse, dietitian, mental health counselor, social worker, physical therapist, occupational therapist, and speech therapist.
Methods of Treatment
People with brain tumors have several treatment options. Depending on the tumor type and stage of the brain cancer, patients may be treated with surgery, radiation therapy, or chemotherapy. Some patients receive a combination of treatments.
In addition, at any stage of disease, patients may have treatment to control pain and other symptoms of the brain cancer, to relieve the side effects of therapy, and to ease emotional problems. This kind of treatment is called symptom management, supportive care, or palliative care.
The doctor is the best person to describe the brain cancer treatment choices and discuss the expected results. A patient may want to talk to the doctor about taking part in a clinical trial, which is a research study of new treatment methods.
Surgery is the usual treatment for most brain tumors. Surgery to open the skull is called a craniotomy. It is performed under general anesthesia. Before surgery begins, the scalp is shaved. The surgeon then makes an incision in the scalp and uses a special type of saw to remove a piece of bone from the skull. After removing part or all of the tumor, the surgeon covers the opening in the skull with that piece of bone or with a piece of metal or fabric. The surgeon then closes the incision in the scalp.
Sometimes surgery is not possible. If the tumor is in the brain stem or certain other areas, the surgeon may not be able to remove the tumor without damaging normal brain tissue. Patients who cannot have surgery may receive radiation or other treatment.
Radiation therapy (also called radiotherapy) uses high-energy rays to kill tumor cells. The radiation may come from x-rays, gamma rays, or protons. A large machine aims radiation at the tumor and the tissue close to it. Sometimes the radiation may be directed to the entire brain or to the spinal cord.
Radiation therapy usually follows surgery. The radiation kills tumor cells that may remain in the area. Sometimes, patients who cannot have surgery have radiation therapy instead.
The patient goes to a hospital or clinic for radiation therapy. The treatment schedule depends on the type and size of the tumor and the age of the patient. Each treatment lasts only a few minutes.
Doctors take steps to protect the healthy tissue around the brain tumor:
Fractionation—Radiation therapy usually is given five days a week for several weeks. Giving the total dose of radiation over an extended period helps to protect healthy tissue in the area of the tumor.
Hyperfractionation—The patient gets smaller doses of radiation two or three times a day instead of a larger amount once a day.
Stereotactic radiation therapy—Narrow beams of radiation are directed at the tumor from different angles. For this procedure, the patient wears a rigid head frame. An MRI or CT scan creates pictures of the tumor's exact location. The doctor uses a computer to decide on the dose of radiation needed, as well as the sizes and angles of the radiation beams. The therapy may be given during a single visit or over several visits.
3-dimensional conformal radiation therapy—A computer creates a 3-dimensional image of the tumor and nearby brain tissue. The doctor aims multiple radiation beams to the exact shape of the tumor. The precise focus of the radiation beams protects normal brain tissue.
Proton beam radiation therapy—The source of radiation is protons rather than x-rays. The doctor aims the proton beams at the tumor. Protons can pass through healthy tissue without damaging it.
Chemotherapy, the use of drugs to kill cancer cells, is sometimes used to treat brain cancer. The drugs may be given by mouth or by injection. Either way, the drugs enter the bloodstream and travel throughout the body. The drugs are usually given in cycles so that a recovery period follows each treatment period.
Chemotherapy may be given in an outpatient part of the hospital, at the doctor's office, or at home. Rarely, the patient may need to stay in the hospital.
For some patients with recurrent cancer of the brain, the surgeon removes the tumor and implants several wafers that contain chemotherapy. Each wafer is about the size of a dime. Over several weeks, the wafers dissolve, releasing the drug into the brain. The drug kills cancer cells.