Brain and other nervous system cancers are among the most complex and serious forms of cancer; they can have lasting and life-altering physical, cognitive, and psychological impacts on a patient’s life. They spare neither children nor adults. Primary brain tumors are relatively rare; the American Cancer Society estimates there will be approximately 450 new cases diagnosed each year in Minnesota. Metastatic brain tumors (when a cancer that developed elsewhere spreads to the brain) are much more common.
We bring advanced radiation therapy for brain tumors close to home, with 11 locations across the Twin Cities, Brainerd Lakes Area, and Western Wisconsin. Since 1981, we’ve established a reputation as trusted allies in the fight against cancer. Count on the cancer specialists at MRO to be here for you, with care, precision, and compassion.
Overall, the chance that a person will develop a primary malignant tumor of the brain or spinal cord is less than 1%. The risk for men (about 1 in 143) is slightly higher than that for women (about 1 in 185), although certain types of tumors are more common in women. – The American Cancer Society
What is brain cancer?
Tumors that start in the brain, or primary brain tumors, are different from tumors that start in other organs and then metastasize – spread – to the brain. Treatment differs as well.
Tumors that start in the brain or spinal cord rarely spread to distant organs. Even so, they’re rarely considered benign (non-cancerous), because they can still grow and spread, destroying nearby brain tissue. And unless they are completely removed or destroyed, most brain or spinal cord tumors will continue to grow and eventually be life-threatening. Tumors are rated, or graded, by their level of malignancy from least to most malignant, depending on location, how fast the cells are growing, blood supply, the presence of dead cells, and other factors.
“Knowledge is power. When patients are fully informed about their cancer and treatment options, they become empowered partners in shared decision-making.”
Jeffery Herman, MD
MRO | Unity
Why choose radiation therapy for brain cancer?
Surgery is the most widely used treatment to remove a brain tumor. But radiation therapy is also commonly used for three reasons.
- After surgery, to kill any remaining tumor cells in the margins.
- As the primary treatment if surgery is not a good option and
chemotherapy is not effective.
- To help prevent or relieve symptoms from the tumor.
Radiation technology is proven effective
At MRO, we use radiation, or radiotherapy, to destroy cancer cells with high doses of radiation. Using state-of-the-art imaging technologies, such as MRI, CT, and PET, your MRO care team can pinpoint radiation doses down to the millimeter.
With brain cancer, there are several different types of techniques used. But each of them directs precise doses of radiation at cancer cells, which are more susceptible to radiation than healthy cells. Like an x-ray, radiation therapy is painless. There’s no fear of becoming radioactive during or after treatment.
Types of radiation therapy for brain tumors
Because there are so many different types of brain cancer, radiation oncology strategies differ from person to person, so your own brain radiation therapy plan is designed specifically for you by your MRO care team.
3D-CRT uses imaging tests such as MRI, and special computers, to map the location of the tumor precisely. Then 3D-CRT shapes and aims multiple radiation beams at the tumor from different directions. Each beam itself is fairly weak, to prevent damage to normal tissues, but the beams converge at the tumor to give a higher cumulative dose at one precise spot.
IMRT is an advanced form of 3D therapy, which uses a computer-driven plan that moves the treatment machine around you as it delivers radiation. Along with shaping the beams and aiming them at the tumor from several angles, the intensity (strength) of the beams can be adjusted to limit the dose reaching the most sensitive normal tissues. This may let your doctor deliver a higher dose to the tumor.
In spite of the name, there is no physical surgery involved in this treatment. SRS delivers a large, precise radiation dose to the tumor area in a single session. (It’s called SRT when there are multiple sessions.) These procedures may be used in parts of the brain or spinal cord that can’t be treated with surgery or when a patient isn’t healthy enough for surgery.
Brachytherapy involves inserting radioactive material directly into or near the tumor. It’s most often used along with external radiation. This provides a high dose of radiation at the tumor site, while the external radiation treats nearby areas with a lower dose.
Full brain and spine radiation therapy (craniospinal radiation)
If tests indicate the tumor has spread along the covering of the spinal cord (meninges) or into the surrounding cerebrospinal fluid, then the whole brain and spinal cord may be treated.
The cause of brain cancer is usually unknown. Most people diagnosed with a primary brain tumor do not have any known risk factors. – National Foundation for Cancer Research
Your treatment is a team effort
When you talk to your doctor about treatment options, ask if MRO is the right choice for you. We’ll start with a consultation appointment lasting one or two hours. During that time you’ll meet with a radiation oncologist.
Once the radiation oncologist has examined you, he or she will discuss treatment options and the pros and cons of radiation treatment for you. A radiation therapy nurse will also be there to help explain treatment, discuss how sessions are scheduled, and provide information on how to take care of yourself during treatment.
Since radiotherapy for brain cancer requires utmost precision, you’ll also go through a simulation at the MRO Therapy Center. Using image mapping as a guide, your care team will position you as you would be for treatment and take measurements to build a targeted treatment plan and pinpoint the radiation for the best possible outcome.
For questions to ask your provider, see our FAQ page.
We make treatment as easy and convenient as possible, so you can get back to living your life.
Your own treatment schedule will be specifically tailored to you, at the MRO clinic that is most convenient for you. Treatment will depend on the type of tumor you have, where it’s located, and what type of technology we’ll be using. You’ll also meet with your physician each week to monitor progress and touch base with your nurse, who can answer any questions you may have.
Managing side effects of radiation therapy
Because your brain is the control center for your body, some of the side effects of treatment can be significant. These risks must be balanced against the risks of not using radiation and having less control of the tumor. Here are some common side effects. If you are experiencing side effects or have questions about any symptoms, contact your MRO care team.
Physical side effects
Some people become irritable and tired during the course of radiation therapy. Less common are nausea, vomiting, and headaches. Sometimes drugs can help relieve symptoms. And some people might experience hair loss.
Problems with thinking and memory
It’s possible to lose some brain function if large areas of the brain receive radiation. You may experience memory loss, personality changes, or trouble concentrating. You can have other cognitive symptoms depending on your specific treatment. Talk to your MRO care team if you’re experiencing cognitive side effects or have questions about any symptoms.
In rare cases after radiation therapy, a mass of dead tissue may form at the site of the original tumor, months or even years after treatment. This risk has declined in recent years and it can often be controlled with medications. But surgery may be needed in some instances.
Risk of secondary tumors
Radiation can damage genes in normal cells. As a result, there is a very small risk of developing a second cancer in an area that received radiation. If this occurs, it’s usually many years after the treatment is given. This small risk should not prevent those who need radiation from getting treatment.
How to care for yourself during treatment
While radiation therapy itself may be painless, it impacts your body in ways that you can’t always see. In order to keep your body strong, here is a list of things to do during treatment:
- Drink plenty of fluids and eat a healthy diet.
- Listen to your body when it comes to sleep. Don’t push yourself too hard, and rest when you’re tired. You will probably be sleeping more than normal, that’s okay.
- Be kind to the skin near your treatment area. Wash the area with mild soap and water, and do not put hot or cold packs on the skin. Contact your MRO care team before using lotions or ointments.
- Find a support group or seek out help to manage the stress that comes with cancer treatment and a cancer diagnosis.
- Make sure to tell your doctor about any medicines or supplements you take to ensure they are safe to use during treatment.
- Follow your doctor’s orders and contact your MRO care team with any questions.
For tumors that can’t be treated with surgery, radiation therapy may be the best option.
After you’ve completed treatment, you’ll have follow-up visits with your MRO radiation oncologist and the doctor who referred you to MRO. Follow-up care varies from patient to patient. Your physician may also recommend home care, occupational or vocational therapy, pain management, physical therapy, and/or participation in support groups.
Whether the tumor was removed completely or not, your MRO care team will follow up closely with you, especially in the first few months after treatment to make sure there is no progression or recurrence. During this time, it’s important to report any new symptoms to your doctor right away, so the cause can be found and treated, if needed.
For more information, visit our resources page.
The National Cancer Institute reports that there are over 688,096 people living with a brain cancer diagnosis.