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Brain Cancer and Chemotherapy

There are several treatment methods for cancer of the brain, and chemotherapy is one of the most common. Known as systemic therapy, the chemotherapy drugs enter the bloodstream and affect cells all over the body. They affect the cells for brain cancer, and can also affect other cells that divide rapidly (such as blood cells, cells in hair roots, and cells that line the digestive tract).

Brain Cancer and Chemotherapy: An Overview

Using chemotherapy to treat brain cancer involves taking drugs that kill cancer cells. Chemotherapy is called systemic therapy because the drugs enter the bloodstream and affect cells all over the body.
Brain cancer chemotherapy can be injected into a blood vessel or given by mouth. Patients with brain cancer may receive their treatment in a clinic, at the hospital, at the doctor's office, or at home. Some patients may need to stay in the hospital during treatment.
Although children are more likely than adults to have chemotherapy, adults may have chemotherapy after surgery and radiation therapy. In some cases, patients with recurrent brain cancer will need surgery to remove the tumor. During the procedure, the surgeon will remove the tumor and implant several wafers that contain chemotherapy medicine. Each wafer is about the size of a dime, and over several weeks, the wafers will dissolve, releasing the drug into the brain, which will kill cancer cells.

Side Effects of Chemotherapy for Brain Cancer

The side effects of chemotherapy will depend on the specific drugs and the dose. Chemotherapy affects cancer cells and other cells that divide rapidly, such as:
  • Blood cells: These cells fight infection, help your blood to clot, and carry oxygen to all parts of the body. When drugs affect your blood cells, you are more likely to get infections, bruise or bleed easily, and feel weak and tired.
  • Cells in hair roots: Chemotherapy can cause you to lose your hair. Although the hair will grow back, it may be somewhat different in color and texture.
  • Cells that line the digestive tract: Chemotherapy can cause a poor appetite, nausea and vomiting, diarrhea, or mouth and lip sores.
Some side effects of chemotherapy for brain cancer may be relieved with medicine. Patients who receive an implant (a wafer) that contains chemotherapy will need to be monitored by the healthcare team for signs of infection after surgery. An infection can be treated with antibiotics.
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