Understanding Radiation Therapy

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Radiation therapy to the brain

Stereotactic radiosurgery (steer-e-o-TACK-tick ray-dee-o-SUR-jer-ee) is often used when cancer is in only one or a few sites in the brain. Side effects vary depending on where the radiation is aimed, and usually become most serious 1 to 2 years after treatment. Talk with your radiation oncologist about what to watch for and when to call for help.

Sometimes the whole brain is treated with radiation when cancer is in many areas. This may also be done to keep cancer from spreading to the brain. Whole-brain radiation can cause these side effects:

  • Headaches
  • Hair loss
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Extreme tiredness (fatigue)
  • Hearing loss
  • Skin and scalp changes
  • Trouble with memory and speech
  • Seizures

Some of these side effects can be caused by swelling of the brain from the radiation. Medicines are usually given to prevent brain swelling, but it’s important to let your doctor know about headaches or any other symptoms. Delayed effects (usually 1 or 2 years later) of whole-brain radiation may be caused by death of brain tissue. These delayed effects can include serious problems such as memory loss, stroke-like symptoms, and poor brain function.

Last Medical Review: 05/02/2014
Last Revised: 05/02/2014