Radiotherapy for brain tumours

Radiotherapy uses high-energy rays to destroy brain tumour cells while causing as little damage as possible to healthy tissue. It can be given as a main treatment when surgery is not possible, or you may have it after surgery. Some people have radiotherapy at the same time as chemotherapy.

You usually have radiotherapy as a series of short daily sessions from Monday to Friday. Treatment last between 2-6 weeks. You may need to wear a light-weight mask mask during the radiotherapy sessions. It helps to keep your head as still as possible and makes sure the exact area is treated.

Stereotactic radiotherapy is a specialised type of radiotherapy sometimes used to treat small tumours that can’t be removed with surgery. It delivers a higher dose of radiotherapy from different angles but gives a low dose to surrounding normal tissue. It is not available in all hospitals.

Stereotactic radiosurgery is another type of stereotactic radiotherapy. But it’s given as a single 30-minute session. It doesn’t involve surgery. You wear a special head frame to keep your head still during treatment.

Radiotherapy to treat brain tumours

Radiotherapy treats cancer by using high-energy rays to destroy the tumour cells, while doing as little harm as possible to normal cells. Newer ways of giving radiotherapy are designed to limit the amount given to healthy brain tissue.

The section about radiotherapy has more information about this treatment, how it’s given and the possible side effects.

Radiotherapy can be used:

  • as your main treatment if surgery is not possible
  • after surgery if not all of the tumour was removed
  • after surgery to reduce the risk of the tumour coming back
  • with chemotherapy if you have a high-grade glioma
  • if a low-grade tumour comes back after surgery.

If you have a low-grade glioma, your doctor may talk to you about delaying radiotherapy treatment. They monitor your symptoms and you have regular scans to show if there are any changes.

External radiotherapy

This is given in the hospital radiotherapy department as a series of short, daily sessions. Treatment is usually given from Monday–Friday, with a rest at the weekend. Some people may only have treatment three days a week. The length of your treatment can vary from 2–6 weeks. This will depend on the type and size of the brain tumour. Your specialist will discuss the treatment plan with you before you start.

Stereotactic radiotherapy

Stereotactic treatment is only available in some specialist hospitals and isn’t suitable for everyone with a brain tumour. You could ask your clinical oncologist whether it would be appropriate in your particular situation.

This type of specialised radiotherapy delivers a higher dose of radiation than external radiotherapy. It uses small radiotherapy beams from many different angles, which cross at the point of the tumour. It gives a very precise dose of radiotherapy to the tumour, but a lower dose to surrounding normal tissue. This reduces the side effects of treatment. It’s usually used to treat smaller tumours that cannot be removed with surgery.

Stereotactic radiotherapy can be given as a course of treatment or as a single treatment. When it’s given as a single treatment, it’s sometimes called radiosurgery.

Stereotactic radiosurgery

This type of stereotactic radiotherapy is given as a single treatment over about 30 minutes. There’s no surgery involved. It’s sometimes called gamma knife treatment after the name of one of the machines that may be used to give it. You have several scans and x-rays to find the precise area for the treatment to be given. You’re fitted with a special light-weight head frame. It pinpoints the exact area for radiosurgery and keeps your head perfectly still during the treatment.

Radiotherapy masks

You may need to wear a light-weight mask that covers your face and the front of your head when having radiotherapy. This will keep your head as still as possible during treatment and make sure the right area is treated. The mask is fitted and made for you before your treatment is planned. They’re usually made from see-through plastic (Perspex) or a plastic mesh moulded to fit the shape of your face.

You can still see and breathe normally, and you only have it on for a few minutes. Most people soon get used to wearing it. If you feel claustrophobic or panicky, tell the radiographers so they can give you support.

We have more information about radiotherapy masks.

Back to Radiotherapy explained

Who might I meet?

You will meet many different specialists before, during and after radiotherapy treatment.