Brain Tumors

Side Effects 

The side effects from treatment of a brain tumor differ in many ways. First, not all people will have the same side effects. You may know someone who had a certain side effect after treatment, but that does not mean you will experience the same thing. Whether or not you have a side effect depends on many factors, including your age, overall health and treatment plan. Second, some side effects cause minor inconvenience or discomfort, and others may cause more discomfort, pain and/or emotional distress.

Following are some common side effects from treatment of a brain tumor. If possible, ask your doctor what side effects to expect before beginning treatment so you can be prepared. Preventing and managing side effects is important because if you feel better, you’re more likely to complete your treatment as planned.

Alopecia (Hair Loss)

Drug therapy and radiation therapy work by killing rapidly dividing cells, such as cancer cells. Because healthy cells in the hair follicles also divide rapidly, they may be damaged, too, causing hair loss. However, not every person treated for cancer will lose his or her hair, even when they receive the same treatment. Although many types of drugs may cause hair loss, chemotherapy drugs are the ones that most commonly can cause loss of hair on the head, face and other parts of the body. Radiation therapy causes hair loss in the area being treated.

What to try:

  • Be gentle to your hair. Use a soft-bristle brush or a wide-toothed comb; avoid shampoos with strong detergents, chemicals or fragrances; avoid hair dryers, hot curlers or curling irons; sleep on a satin pillowcase.
  • Buy a wig you really like before treatment begins.
  • Ask your doctor for a prescription for a wig. It may be covered by insurance if it is written as “skull prosthesis for hair loss caused by cancer treatment.”


Diarrhea is the passing of loose or watery stools three or more times a day and may be accompanied by cramps in the abdomen and pain or discomfort in the rectum. When mild, diarrhea is an inconvenience, but left untreated it can lead to serious problems, such as dehydration, weight loss and fatigue. Treatment-related diarrhea is a short-term side effect that typically occurs within the first few days after treatment starts and usually resolves within a few weeks after treatment stops. Call your doctor if diarrhea is severe. He or she may prescribe other medications or stop treatment temporarily until your diarrhea is controlled. People who have drug therapy or radiation therapy may have diarrhea.

What to try:

  • Follow a diet of only clear liquids so the lining of your intestines can heal. Once diarrhea improves, slowly add solid foods to your diet, starting with low-fiber foods, such as white rice or boiled potatoes.
  • Avoid dairy products; spicy, greasy or fried foods; raw fruits or vegetables; or high-fiber foods.
  • Ask your doctor if you can take over-the-counter medicines and supplements.


Treatment-related fatigue occurs primarily because the body needs extra energy to repair the healthy tissue damaged by cancer treatment. Different from the fatigue that healthy individuals feel, this type of fatigue usually lasts longer, is more severe and is unrelieved by sleep. People who have surgery or receive radiation therapy or drug therapy may feel fatigue.

What to try:

  • Perform regular exercise, such as walking or yoga.
  • Get eight hours of sleep at night. Take frequent naps, and limit them to no more than 45 minutes.
  • Save your energy for activities that are most important to you.
  • Eat a healthy diet to help promote healing and restore your energy.
  • Seek relief for other symptoms that may contribute to fatigue, such as nausea, vomiting and depression.

Fertility Issues

Parenthood is an integral part of life that many individuals envision for themselves. However, certain types of cancer treatments can affect fertility (the ability to start or maintain a pregnancy). For both men and women, fertility options become much more limited after treatments start, so it’s wise to talk to your doctor about safeguarding your fertility before you begin any type of treatment. People who receive certain drug therapies or radiation therapy may have fertility issues.

What to try:

  • Before treatment, if possible, ask your doctor about fertility preservation options.
  • If you’ve already started treatment, ask your doctor to evaluate whether your fertility has been affected.
  • Explore other options for parenthood, including adoption or the use of an egg, embryo or sperm donor.


Headaches may be a side effect from treatment, as well as a symptom of the pressure caused by the tumor itself. People who have surgery or receive radiation therapy or drug therapy may have headaches.

What to try:

  • Take over-the-counter pain relievers.
  • Get enough sleep, reduce stress and eat a healthy diet.
  • Ask your doctor about prescription medications if your headaches are severe.

Mouth Sores

Mouth sores may form in the lining of the inside of the mouth and can affect the gums, tongue, roof of mouth or lips. Mouth sores can develop into white patches that may become large red lesions. Pain may range from mild to severe, making it difficult to talk, eat or swallow. Mouth sores are most often related to drug therapy.

What to try:

  • Keep your mouth and lips moist by using lip balm, sipping water, sucking ice chips and drinking through a straw.
  • Choose soft, moist foods that are easy to swallow, such as mashed potatoes or scrambled eggs.
  • Avoid hot, spicy, acidic, greasy or rough-textured foods.
  • Avoid alcoholic beverages and tobacco products.
  • Brush and floss several times a day. Your doctor may suggest rinsing with special solutions or may prescribe a medication that coats the lining of your mouth or pain medications that can be topically applied.

Nausea and Vomiting

Nausea and vomiting occur when cancer drugs damage the cells lining the inside of the stomach. Nausea and vomiting are easier to prevent than to control once they’ve started. People who have drug therapy or radiation therapy may experience nausea and vomiting.

What to try:

  • Take antiemetics (drugs that prevent and control nausea and vomiting) as recommended by your doctor.
  • Eat several small meals throughout the day rather than a few big meals.
  • Drink plenty of fluids to stay hydrated.
  • Try some nondrug approaches, such as guided imagery, self-hypnosis and acupuncture.

Skin reactions

Skin reactions can include redness and irritation (similar to sunburn), rash, or dry, flaky skin. These reactions often cause itchiness and discomfort, and most are mild to moderate; however, some reactions can become severe if not treated early. If a rash develops that causes itchiness or pain, your doctor may prescribe a mild corticosteroid cream or an antibiotic gel. Severe rashes may be treated with an oral antibiotic or an oral corticosteroid. When a rash is severe, treatment may be reduced or temporarily stopped until the rash gets better. Skin reactions may develop in people who receive radiation therapy, alternating electric field therapy (tumor treating fields) or drug therapy.

What to try:

  • Moisturize your skin twice daily with a thick cream that contains no alcohol, perfume or dye. Apply when your skin is still damp after bathing.
  • Avoid laundry detergents with perfumes and dyes.
  • Wear loose-fitting clothes.


Coping with Emotional and Cognitive Changes

Complex emotional and cognitive issues can accompany the diagnosis and treatment of a brain tumor. These are common, yet serious, aspects of brain tumor treatment, and it is important to tell your health care team immediately if you experience any of these conditions.

Memory and Cognitive Changes

The ability to think, reason, process and remember information can be affected by surgery, radiation therapy and drug therapy. Another common side effect, fatigue, can zap the energy you need for thinking and remembering. Emotional changes also can occur. Your moods may differ, and you may deal with anxiety, anger or stress differently. These changes can be temporary or long term. If you experience these types of side effects, talk with your doctor. He or she likely will schedule an evaluation to help determine the best ways to train or re-train the cognitive skills that may have been lost or affected during treatment.


Depression is common for people with cancer. Depression is more complex than just feeling sad or hopeless and can result from low hormones, a chemical imbalance in the brain, uncontrolled pain and other unrelieved symptoms. Maintaining your normal routine as much as possible may give you less time to be weighed down emotionally by your condition. Regular physical activity and relaxation techniques are other coping techniques. If you have thoughts of hurting yourself or others, talk with your doctor immediately.

Financial Anxiety

Treatment and related items, such as additional care, can be expensive, which can add to the stress you may feel already. Some people may even let the cost prevent them from seeking or continuing treatment. You are encouraged to learn more about the costs related to treating your brain tumor. Ask your treatment team or your health insurance provider to refer you to someone who is familiar with your case and can provide more information.



Managing Late Effects

Although side effects typically disappear shortly after treatment ends, long-term physical and emotional effects may develop months or years after treatment for your brain tumor ends and may be long-lasting or permanent. Late effects can result from drug therapy, radiation therapy and surgery, and can affect children and adults. Whether you continue to see your oncologist or choose to see your primary care physician, be sure to let your doctor know as soon as you experience late effects so you can begin to manage them right away. Following are some common late effects.

Cognitive issues. Memory, motor skills, learning and behavior can be affected. Children who experience these issues may have learning disabilities.

Dental concerns. Increased risk for cavities, thinning of tooth enamel and problems with roots, are likely. Visit your dentist regularly.

Emotional changes. Changes in mood and behavior can occur. It is important to watch for these types of changes and report them to your doctor immediately so you can be evaluated right away.

Fertility issues. Your fertility may be affected, impairing your ability to have a child or to maintain a pregnancy. If having children is part of your life plan, ask your doctor to check your hormone levels annually. An endocrinologist is recommended to monitor the progress of puberty and hormone levels in children after receiving treatment for a brain tumor.

Hearing loss and tinnitus (ringing in the ears). You should have regular audiology testing after treatment. Hearing aids may help, if necessary.

Hormonal issues. Growth and reproductive issues and osteoporosis may occur. Hormone levels should be checked regularly. Children should be monitored closely throughout puberty.

Language and speech impairment. Many problems can occur, including your ability to express yourself and your ability to comprehend others. Rehabilitation with a speech pathologist can help you find ways to improve these communication skills.

Vision problems. The risk of vision loss or cataracts is increased. Be sure to have your eyes checked regularly.



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