A seizure is the uncontrolled movement of muscles. It happens when nerve cells in the brain become overexcited and don’t work properly. Seizures usually last less than 5 minutes. They are followed by sleepiness and confusion that can last for several hours. Seizures in cancer patients can be caused by high fevers, head injury, serious infections of the fluid around the spine and brain, an imbalance in body chemistry, and tumor growth in the spine or brain.

What to look for

  • Eyes stare blankly or roll back
  • Patient suddenly loses control of urine and bowels
  • Jerking movements of the body, especially the arms and legs

What the patient can do

  • Talk to your cancer team about your seizures. Bring the person who saw your seizure with you to answer any questions about it.
  • Take anti-seizure medicines as prescribed.

What caregivers can do

  • Keep the patient safe. If a seizure starts while the patient is in bed or on a chair, cradle the patient in your arms to keep them from falling to the floor and hitting their head.
  • Stay with the patient.
  • Stay calm.
  • Loosen any clothing around the patient’s neck.
  • If the patient falls to the floor, put padding (such as rolled-up clothes or towels) under their head and roll them onto their side.
  • If the patient is lying on their back and you can’t roll them, gently turn their head to the side if you can. Don’t force any part of the body to move.
  • Try to notice what type of movements the patient makes, how long the seizure lasts, and what parts of the body move with the seizure.
  • Don’t try to open the mouth during a seizure, even if the patient is biting their tongue. Keep your fingers and hands away from the patient’s mouth.
  • Don’t move the patient unless they are in a dangerous location (such as near a hot radiator, glass door, or stairs).
  • Once the seizure is over, cover the patient with a blanket and let them rest.
  • Don’t give medicines, food, or liquids until you call the cancer team and the patient is fully awake.
  • If the patient is known to have seizures, use side rails and bumper pads on their bed. Be sure someone is with the patient when they’re walking or sitting in a chair.
  • Give anti-seizure medicine as prescribed.

Call the cancer team if the patient:

  • Has a seizure, once it’s over and the patient is comfortable (If someone else is with you, stay with the patient and have the other person call the cancer team.)

The American Cancer Society medical and editorial content team

Our team is made up of doctors and oncology certified nurses with deep knowledge of cancer care as well as journalists, editors, and translators with extensive experience in medical writing.

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Last Medical Review: June 8, 2015 Last Revised: June 8, 2015

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