Chemotherapy for a Brain Tumor

Chemotherapy is a way of treating disease with medications. It may be given as a single medication or a combination. There are many chemotherapy medicines and combinations. It may be used alone or along with surgery or radiation therapy. Knowing what chemotherapy does, how it is given, and how to cope with possible side effects can be helpful.

Woman sitting in chair with IV in arm. IV goes to pump on pole with two IV bags.

How chemotherapy works

Both normal and cancer cells grow and divide. But cancer cells grow, divide, and spread out of control. Chemotherapy kills growing cells by interrupting their life cycle. Because it acts on normal cells as well as cancer cells, side effects result. Fast-growing cells—such as those in the hair, digestive system, and blood—are most affected.

How chemotherapy is given

Chemotherapy is given in cycles, with periods of rest between the days that the drugs are given. This allows the body to rest and build healthy cells between treatments. You can receive your therapy for a brain tumor:

  • By IV (injection into a vein or artery)

  • By IM (intramuscularly)

  • Intrathecally, which is directly into the spinal canal and cerebrospinal fluid

  • By mouth, as a pill

  • As a wafer implanted in the brain

Coping with side effects

Chemotherapy can cause side effects in different parts of your body. Here are some common short-term side effects and tips that may help control them.

For fatigue

  • Eat a healthy diet and drink plenty of fluids.

  • Get help and support with chores.

  • Consider an exercise program as well as increased rest periods.

For nausea or vomiting

  • Take antinausea medications as directed.

  • Eat small meals throughout the day.

For low blood cell counts

  • A low white blood cell count makes your body less able to fight infection. Wash your hands often. Avoid crowds and people who are sick.

  • A low platelet count increases the risk of bleeding. Avoid activities that could result in cuts or bruising.

  • A low red blood cell count, or anemia, may require treatment. Call your doctor if you are very tired and pale, short of breath, or have chest pain.

For hair loss

  • Cut your hair short to make hair loss less extreme.

  • Consider wearing a wig, hat, or scarf, or shaving your head bald.

  • Not all chemotherapy drugs will cause hair loss.

For mouth sores

  • Brush your teeth after meals to keep your mouth clean and prevent infection. Use a soft toothbrush.

  • Rinse with baking soda in water.

Long-term side effects and risks include infertility, organ damage, and numbness and tingling in the hands and feet.