ON THIS PAGE: You will learn about the different types of treatments doctors use for people with a brain tumor. Use the menu to see other pages.
This section explains the types of treatments that are the standard of care for a brain tumor. “Standard of care” means the best treatments known. When making treatment plan decisions, you are encouraged to consider clinical trials as an option. A clinical trial is a research study that tests a new approach to treatment. Doctors want to learn whether the new treatment is safe, effective, and possibly better than the standard treatment. Clinical trials can test a new drug, a new combination of standard treatments, or new doses of standard drugs or other treatments. Clinical trials are an option to consider for treatment and care for all types of brain tumors. Your doctor can help you consider all your treatment options. Learn more about clinical trials in the About Clinical Trials and Latest Research sections of this guide.
In brain tumor care, different types of doctors often work together to create a patient’s overall treatment plan that combines different types of treatment. This is called a multidisciplinary team. Your care team may include a variety of other health care professionals, such as physician assistants, oncology nurses, social workers, pharmacists, counselors, dietitians, rehabilitation specialists, and others. It is important to have a care team that specializes in caring for people with a brain tumor, which may mean talking with medical professionals beyond your local area to help with diagnosis and treatment planning.
Descriptions of the common types of treatments used for a brain tumor are listed below. Your care plan may also include treatment for symptoms and side effects, an important part of your medical care.
Treatment options and recommendations depend on several factors:
The size, type, and grade of the tumor
Whether the tumor is putting pressure on vital parts of the brain
If the tumor has spread to other parts of the CNS or body
Possible side effects
The patient’s preferences and overall health.
Some types of brain tumors grow rapidly; other tumors grow slowly. Considering all these factors, your doctor will talk with you about how soon treatment should start after diagnosis.
Treatment options include those described below, such as surgery, radiation therapy, chemotherapy, and targeted therapy.
For a low-grade brain tumor, surgery may be the only treatment needed especially if all of the tumor can be removed. If there is visible tumor remaining after surgery, radiation therapy and chemotherapy may be used. For higher-grade tumors, treatment usually begins with surgery, followed by radiation therapy and chemotherapy. Your exact treatment plan will be made by your health care team.
Successfully treating brain tumors can be challenging. The body’s blood-brain barrier normally protects the brain and spinal cord from harmful chemicals. However, this barrier also keeps out many types of chemotherapy. Surgery can be difficult if the tumor is near a delicate part of the brain or spinal cord. Even when the surgeon can completely remove the original tumor, parts of the tumor may remain that are too small to be seen or removed during surgery. Radiation therapy can also damage healthy tissue.
However, research in the past 20 years has helped to significantly lengthen the lives of people with a brain tumor. More refined surgeries, a better understanding of the types of tumors that respond to chemotherapy, and more targeted delivery of radiation therapy have lengthened lives and improved the quality of life for many people diagnosed with a brain tumor.
Take time to learn about all of your treatment options and be sure to ask questions about things that are unclear. Talk with your doctor about the goals of each treatment and what you can expect while receiving the treatment. These types of talks are called “shared decision making.” Shared decision making is when you and your doctors work together to choose treatments that fit the goals of your care. Shared decision making is particularly important for a brain tumor because there are different treatment options. Learn more about making treatment decisions.
Physical, emotional, and social effects of a brain tumor
A brain tumor and its treatment cause physical symptoms and side effects, as well as emotional, social, and financial effects. Managing all of these effects is called palliative care or supportive care. It is an important part of your care that is included along with treatments intended to slow, stop, or eliminate the tumor.
Palliative care focuses on improving how you feel during treatment by managing symptoms and supporting patients and their families with other, non-medical needs. Any person, regardless of age or type and stage of tumor, may receive this type of care. And it often works best when it is started right after a brain tumor diagnosis. People who receive palliative care along with treatment for the tumor often have less severe symptoms, better quality of life, and report that they are more satisfied with treatment.
Palliative treatments vary widely and often include medication, nutritional changes, relaxation techniques, emotional and spiritual support, and other therapies. You may also receive palliative treatments similar to those meant to get rid of the tumor, such as chemotherapy, surgery, or radiation therapy.
Some of the symptoms of a brain tumor can be severe and have an enormous impact on the daily lives of patients and their family caregivers. However, symptoms can often be managed with the use of certain medications. Supportive care for people with a brain tumor includes:
Drugs called corticosteroids. These are used to lower swelling in the brain, which can lessen pain from the swelling without the need for prescription pain medications. These drugs may also help improve neurological symptoms by decreasing the pressure from the tumor and swelling in the healthy brain tissue.
Anti-seizure medicines. These help control seizures, and there are several types of drugs available. They are prescribed by your neurologist.
Before treatment begins, talk with your doctor about the goals of each treatment in the treatment plan. You should also talk about the possible side effects of the specific treatment plan and palliative care options.
During treatment, your health care team may ask you to answer questions about your symptoms and side effects and to describe each problem. Be sure to tell the health care team if you are experiencing a problem. This helps the health care team treat any symptoms and side effects as quickly as possible. It can also help prevent more serious problems in the future.
Learn more about the importance of tracking side effects in another part of this guide. Learn more about palliative care in a separate section of this website.
Surgery is the removal of the tumor and some surrounding healthy tissue during an operation. It is usually the first treatment used for a brain tumor and is often the only treatment needed for a low-grade brain tumor. Removing the tumor can improve neurological symptoms, provide tissue for diagnosis, help make other brain tumor treatments more effective, and, in many instances, improve the prognosis of a person with a brain tumor.
A neurosurgeon is a doctor who specializes in surgery on the brain and spinal column. Surgery to the brain requires the removal of part of the skull, a procedure called a craniotomy. After the surgeon removes the tumor, the patient's own bone will be used to cover the opening in the skull.
There have been rapid advances in surgery for brain tumors, including the use of cortical mapping, enhanced imaging, and fluorescent dyes.
Cortical mapping allows doctors to identify areas of the brain that control the senses, language, and motor skills.
Enhanced imaging devices give surgeons more tools to plan and perform surgery. For example, computer-based techniques, such as Image Guided Surgery (IGS), help surgeons map out the location of the tumor very accurately. However, this is a very specialized technique that may not be widely available.
A fluorescent dye, called 5 aminolevulinic acid, can be given by mouth the morning before surgery. This dye is taken up by tumor cells. Doctors can use a special microscope and light to see the cells that have taken up the dye during the surgery. This helps doctors safely remove as much of the tumor as possible.
For a tumor that is near the brain’s speech center, it is increasingly common to perform the operation when the patient is awake for part of the surgery. Typically, the patient is awakened once the surface of the brain is exposed. Then, special electrical stimulation techniques are used to locate the specific part of the brain that controls speech. This approach can avoid causing damage while removing the tumor.
In addition to removing or reducing the size of the brain tumor, surgery can provide a tissue sample for biopsy analysis, as explained in Diagnosis. For some tumor types, the results of this analysis can help determine if chemotherapy or radiation therapy will be useful. For a cancerous tumor, even if it cannot be cured, removing it can relieve symptoms from the tumor pressing on the brain.
Sometimes, surgery cannot be performed because the tumor is located in a place the surgeon cannot reach, or it is near a vital structure. These tumors are called inoperable. If the tumor is inoperable, the doctor will recommend other treatment options that may also include a biopsy or removal of a portion of the tumor.
Before surgery, talk with your health care team about the possible side effects from the specific surgery you will have. Learn more about the basics of surgery.
Radiation therapy is the use of high-energy x-rays or other particles to destroy tumor cells. Doctors may use radiation therapy to slow or stop the growth of a brain tumor. It is typically given after surgery and possibly along with chemotherapy. A doctor who specializes in giving radiation therapy to treat a tumor is called a radiation oncologist. The most common type of radiation treatment is called external-beam radiation therapy, which is radiation given from a machine outside the body. When radiation treatment is given using implants, it is called internal radiation therapy or brachytherapy. A radiation therapy regimen, or schedule, usually consists of a specific number of treatments given over a set period of time.
External-beam radiation therapy can be directed at a brain tumor in the following ways:
Conventional radiation therapy. The treatment location is determined based on anatomic landmarks and x-rays. In certain situations, such as whole brain radiation therapy for brain metastases, this technique is appropriate. For more precise targeting, different techniques are needed. The amount of radiation given depends on the tumor’s grade.
3-dimensional conformal radiation therapy (3D-CRT). Using images from CT and MRI scans (see Diagnosis), a 3-dimensional model of the tumor and healthy tissue surrounding the tumor is created on a computer. This model can be used to aim the radiation beams directly at the tumor, sparing the healthy tissue from high doses of radiation therapy.
Intensity modulated radiation therapy (IMRT). IMRT is a type of 3D-CRT (see above) that can more directly target a tumor. It can deliver higher doses of radiation to the tumor while giving less to the surrounding healthy tissue. In IMRT, the radiation beams are broken up into smaller beams and the intensity of each of these smaller beams can be changed. This means that the more intense beams, or the beams giving more radiation, can be directed only at the tumor.
Proton therapy. Proton therapy is a type of external-beam radiation therapy that uses protons rather than x-rays. At high energy, protons can destroy tumor cells. Proton beam therapy is typically used for tumors when less radiation is needed because of the location. This includes tumors that have grown into nearby bone, such as the base of skull, and those near the optic nerve.
Stereotactic radiosurgery. Stereotactic radiosurgery is the use of a single, high dose of radiation given directly to the tumor and not healthy tissue. It works best for a tumor that is only in 1 area of the brain and certain noncancerous tumors. It can also be used when a person has more than 1 metastatic brain tumor. There are many different types of stereotactic radiosurgery equipment, including:
A modified linear accelerator is a machine that creates high-energy radiation by using electricity to form a stream of fast-moving subatomic particles.
A gamma knife is another form of radiation therapy that concentrates highly focused beams of gamma radiation on the tumor.
A cyber knife is a robotic device used in radiation therapy to guide radiation to the tumor, particularly in the brain, head, and neck regions.
Fractionated stereotactic radiation therapy. Radiation therapy is delivered with stereotactic precision but divided into small daily doses called fractions and given over several weeks, in contrast to the 1-day radiosurgery. This technique is used for tumors located close to sensitive structures, such as the optic nerves or brain stem.
With these different techniques, doctors are trying to be more precise and reduce radiation exposure to the surrounding healthy brain tissue. Depending on the size and location of the tumor, the radiation oncologist may choose any of the above radiation techniques. In certain situations, a combination of multiple techniques may work best.
Short-term side effects from radiation therapy may include fatigue, mild skin reactions, hair loss, upset stomach, and neurologic symptoms, such as memory problems. Most side effects go away soon after treatment is finished. Also, radiation therapy is usually not recommended for children younger than 5 because of the high risk of damage to their developing brains. Longer term side effects of radiation therapy depend on how much healthy tissue received radiation and include memory and hormonal problems and cognitive (thought process) changes, such as difficulty understanding and performing complex tasks.
Learn more about the basics of radiation therapy.
Therapies using medication
Systemic therapy is the use of medication to destroy tumor cells. This type of medication is given through the bloodstream to reach tumor cells throughout the body. Systemic therapies are generally prescribed by a medical oncologist, a doctor who specializes in treating a tumor with medication. Systemic therapies may also be given by a neuro-oncologist
Common ways to give systemic therapies include an intravenous (IV) tube placed into a vein using a needle or in a pill or capsule that is swallowed (orally). It may also be given through a catheter or port, which are used to make IV injections easier.
The types of systemic therapies used for a brain tumor include:
Each of these types of therapies is discussed below in more detail. A person may receive 1 type of systemic therapy at a time or a combination of systemic therapies given at the same time. They can also be given as part of a treatment plan that includes surgery and/or radiation therapy.
The medications used to treat a brain tumor are continually being evaluated. Talking with your doctor is often the best way to learn about the medications prescribed for you, their purpose, and their potential side effects or interactions with other medications. It is also important to let your doctor know if you are taking any other prescription or over-the-counter medications or supplements. Herbs, supplements, and other drugs can interact with the medications used for a brain tumor. Learn more about your prescriptions by using searchable drug databases.
Chemotherapy is the use of drugs to destroy tumor cells, usually by keeping the tumor cells from growing, dividing, and making more cells.
A chemotherapy regimen, or schedule, usually consists of a specific number of cycles given over a set period of time. A patient may receive 1 drug at a time or a combination of different drugs given at the same time. The goal of chemotherapy can be to destroy tumor cells remaining after surgery, slow a tumor’s growth, or reduce symptoms.
As explained above, chemotherapy to treat a brain tumor is typically given after surgery and possibly with or after radiation therapy, particularly if the tumor has come back after initial treatment.
Some drugs are better at going through the blood-brain barrier. These are the drugs often used for a brain tumor.
Gliadel wafers are one way to give the drug carmustine. These wafers are placed in the area where the tumor was removed during surgery.
For people with glioblastoma and high-grade glioma, the latest standard of care is radiation therapy with daily low-dose temozolomide (Temodar). This is followed by monthly doses of temozolomide after radiation therapy for 6 months to 1 year.
A combination of 3 drugs, lomustine (Gleostine), procarbazine (Matulane), and vincristine (Vincasar), have been used along with radiation therapy. This approach has helped lengthen the lives of patients with grade III oligodendroglioma with a 1p19q co-deletion (see Biogenetic markers in the Grades and Prognostic Factors section) when given either before or right after radiation therapy. It has also been shown to lengthen lives of patients after radiation therapy for a low-grade tumor that could not be completely removed with surgery. Clinical trials on the use of chemotherapy to delay radiation therapy for patients with low-grade glioma are also ongoing.
Patients are monitored with a brain MRI every 2 to 3 months while receiving active treatment. Then, the length of time between MRI scans increases depending on the tumor’s grade. Patients often have regular MRIs to monitor their health after treatment is finished and the tumor has not grown. If the tumor grows during treatment, other treatment options will be considered.
The side effects of chemotherapy depend on the individual and the dose used, but they can include fatigue, risk of infection, nausea and vomiting, hair loss, loss of appetite and diarrhea. These side effects usually go away after treatment is finished. Rarely, certain drugs may cause some hearing loss. Others may cause kidney damage. Patients may be given extra fluid by IV to protect their kidneys.
Learn more about the basics of chemotherapy.
In addition to standard chemotherapy, targeted therapy is a treatment that targets the tumor’s specific genes, proteins, or the tissue environment that contributes to a tumor’s growth and survival. This type of treatment blocks the growth and spread of tumor cells while limiting the damage to healthy cells.
Not all tumors have the same targets, and some tumors may have more than 1 target. To find the most effective treatment, your doctor may run tests to identify the genes, proteins, and other factors in your tumor. This helps doctors better match each patient with the most effective treatment whenever possible. In addition, research studies continue to find out more about specific molecular targets and new treatments directed at them. Learn more about the basics of targeted treatments.
For a brain tumor, there are 2 types of targeted therapy that may be used:
- Bevacizumab (Avastin, Mvasi) is an anti-angiogenesis therapy used to treat glioblastoma multiforme when prior treatment has not worked. Anti-angiogenesis therapy is focused on stopping angiogenesis, which is the process of making new blood vessels. Because a tumor needs the nutrients delivered by blood vessels to grow and spread, the goal of anti-angiogenesis therapy is to “starve” the tumor.
- Larotrectinib (Vitrakvi) is a type of targeted therapy that is not specific to a certain type of tumor but focuses on a specific genetic change called an NTRK fusion. This type of genetic change is found in a range of tumors, including some brain tumors. It is approved as a treatment for some brain tumors that are metastatic or cannot be removed with surgery and have worsened with other treatments.
Talk with your doctor about the possible side effects for a specific medication and how they can be managed.
Alternating electric field therapy (tumor treating fields)
This type of treatment uses a noninvasive portable device that interferes with the parts of a cell that are needed for tumor cells to grow and spread. It is given by placing electrodes that produce an electric field on the outside of a person’s head. The available device is called Optune.
Alternating electrical field therapy may be an option for people newly diagnosed with glioblastoma or for those with recurrent glioblastoma. Researchers have found that people with recurrent glioblastoma who used the device lived as long as those who received chemotherapy. In addition, they had fewer side effects. Other research shows that people newly diagnosed with glioblastoma lived longer and were less likely to have the disease worsen when this treatment was used along temozolomide after radiation therapy. This treatment approach is now considered a recommended option for glioblastoma.
Remission and the chance of recurrence
A remission is when the tumor cannot be detected in the body. A remission can be temporary or permanent.
For most primary brain tumors, despite imaging tests showing that the tumor growth is controlled or there are no visible signs of a tumor, it is common for a brain tumor to recur.
Patients will often continue to receive MRI scans to watch for a recurrence. This uncertainty causes many people to worry that the tumor will come back. It is important to talk with your doctor about the possibility of the tumor returning. Understanding your risk of recurrence and the treatment options may help you feel more prepared if the tumor does return. Learn more about coping with the fear of recurrence.
If the tumor returns after the original treatment, it is called a recurrent tumor. A recurrent brain tumor generally comes back near where it originally started. Rarely, it may come back in another place, called multifocal.
When this occurs, a new cycle of testing will begin again to learn as much as possible about the recurrence. After this testing is done, you and your doctor will talk about the treatment options. Often the treatment plan will include the treatments described above such as surgery, radiation therapy, chemotherapy, and targeted therapy, but they may be used in a different combination or given at a different pace. Options may include:
There is no single approach to treating a recurrent brain tumor, and your treatment plan will be based on many factors. Whichever treatment plan you choose, palliative care will be important for relieving symptoms and side effects. Your doctor may suggest clinical trials of new drugs that are being created and tested to treat brain tumors that may help with recurrent tumors. Many of these new drugs are called "molecular targeted therapies" because they are small in size, which means they can be taken by mouth and/or can target specific parts of the brain tumor cells (see Targeted therapy, above). These new drugs are being tested either alone or in combination with standard chemotherapy. Learn more about clinical trials on brain tumor treatment in the Latest Research section.
People with a recurrent brain tumor often experience emotions such as disbelief or fear. For most people, a diagnosis of a recurrent brain tumor is very stressful and, at times, difficult to bear. You are encouraged to talk with the health care team about these feelings and ask about support services to help you cope. It may also be helpful to talk with other patients, including through a support group. Learn more about dealing with a recurrence.
If cancer spreads to the brain or CNS from where it started, doctors call it metastatic cancer or a secondary brain tumor. If this happens, it is a good idea to talk with doctors who have experience in treating it. Doctors can have different opinions about the best standard treatment plan. Clinical trials might also be an option. Learn more about getting a second opinion before starting treatment, so you are comfortable with your chosen treatment plan.
For most people, a diagnosis of metastatic cancer is very stressful and, at times, difficult to bear. You and your family are encouraged to talk about how you feel with doctors, nurses, social workers, or other members of the health care team. It may also be helpful to talk with other patients, including through a support group.
Your treatment plan may include a combination of surgery, radiation therapy, targeted therapy, and immunotherapy, which is a type of treatment designed to boost the body's natural defenses to fight the tumor. Learn more about immunotherapy below and in the Latest Research section of this guide.
Treatment of brain metastases
If cancer spread to the brain from another part of the body, it is called a brain metastasis. Brain metastases have traditionally been treated with surgery or radiation therapy. Chemotherapy is not often used because the blood-brain barrier keeps many drugs from reaching the brain. In the past, chemotherapy was mostly used only if radiation therapy did not work. Current options for treating brain metastases include:
Surgery. Surgery is generally only an option for patients who have a single area of cancer in the brain. Radiation therapy is often given afterwards.
Radiation therapy. Whole-brain radiation therapy (WBRT) is radiation therapy given to the entire brain. Sometimes, doctors can avoid damaging a part of the brain called the "hippocampus." This helps lessen the cognitive side effects linked with radiation therapy. High-dose radiation therapy can be given using stereotactic techniques (see Radiation therapy, above) that focus the radiation only on the tumor in the brain, which can also help lessen the side effects. This method works very well for getting rid of existing tumors, but it may not prevent new tumors from developing.
Targeted therapy. Some types of targeted therapy can easily enter the brain and are able to target specific genetic changes in the tumor. These include:
Osimertinib (Tagrisso) for non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC) that has a genetic change on the EGFR gene
Alectinib (Alecensa) for NSCLC with a genetic change on the ALK gene
Lapatinib (Tykerb) may be used for HER2-positive breast cancer
Dabrafenib (Tafinlar) either by itself or along with trametinib (Mekinist) and vemurafenib (Zelboraf) for melanoma
Immunotherapy. Some types of immunotherapy have shown promise in treating brain metastases from lung cancer and melanoma. These include ipilimumab (Yervoy), nivolumab (Opdivo), and pembrolizumab (Keytruda).
Treatment of leptomeningeal metastases
If cancer spreads to the meninges or the CSF, it is called leptomeningeal metastases. People with leptomeningeal metastases may receive chemotherapy given directly into the CSF of the brain. This may be done with a lumbar puncture, called intrathecal chemotherapy. Or it may be given using a catheter with a reservoir, called an Ommaya reservoir. Radiation therapy may also be an option.
Managing the symptoms and side effects of brain metastases
The symptoms of brain metastases depend on where in the brain the cancer has spread, how much cancer is in the brain, and how quickly it spreads.
Relieving a person's symptoms and side effects is an important part of cancer care. Treatment for symptoms can continue even when active treatment to cure or slow down the cancer stops. Be sure to talk with the health care team about new symptoms or changes to existing symptoms.
ASCO recommends the following options to help relieve symptoms of brain metastases:
Dexamethasone (available as a generic drug), a type of drug called a corticosteroid, to lower swelling in the brain and help improve neurological symptoms caused by the tumor and swelling in the healthy brain tissue.
Anti-seizure medications are only recommended for people who are having seizures.
Learn about other options to help manage the symptoms of brain metastases.
This information is based on ASCO's endorsement of recommendations on the use of anti-seizure medications and steroids for metastatic brain tumors from the Congress of Neurological Surgeons. Please note that this link takes you to another ASCO website.
If treatment does not work
Recovery from a brain tumor is not always possible. If the tumor cannot be cured or controlled, the disease may be called advanced or terminal.
This diagnosis is stressful, and for many people, an advanced brain tumor is difficult to discuss. However, it is important to have open and honest conversations with your health care team to express your feelings, preferences, and concerns. The health care team has special skills, experience, and knowledge to support patients and their families and is there to help. Making sure a person is physically comfortable, free from pain, and emotionally supported is extremely important.
People who have an advanced brain tumor and who are expected to live less than 6 months may want to consider hospice care. Hospice care is designed to provide the best possible quality of life for people who are near the end of life. You and your family are encouraged to talk with the health care team about hospice care options, which include hospice care at home, a special hospice center, or other health care locations. Nursing care and special equipment can make staying at home a workable option for many families. Learn more about advanced care planning.
After the death of a loved one, many people need support to help them cope with the loss. Learn more about grief and loss.
The next section in this guide is About Clinical Trials. It offers more information about research studies that are focused on finding better ways to care for people with a brain tumor. Use the menu to choose a different section to read in this guide.