How Radiation Therapy Treats Brain Tumors
- Jonathan Plummer, 41, first thought he had diabetes as he was experiencing “constant thirst” and “extreme fatigue.” However, an MRI scan revealed he had a brain tumor.
- Brain tumors account for 85-90% of all primary central nervous system (CNS) tumors, according to the American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO). In 2023, the ASCO estimates that 24,810 adults (14,280 men and 10,530 women) in the United States will be diagnosed with primary cancerous tumors of the brain and spinal cord.
- Plummer underwent 30 rounds of radiation in his fight against the disease. During radiation therapy, high-energy beams such as X-rays are focused directly on the tumor or cancer cells.
- When it comes to radiation to the brain, the treatment itself is not painful and may last 10-30 minutes, according to MacMillan Cancer Support.
- Board-certified neurosurgeon at Emory University School of Medicine Dr. Kimberly Hoang tells SurvivorNet that the radiation may help "keep those tumors from growing or shrink them down."
Following various doctors visits that led to inconclusive test results, a mass was found during a routine eye exam, prompting the English man to be referred to a hospital for an MRI scan, which offered him some insight into the unusual symptoms he had been having.Read More
He explained further, “I was devastated. The tumor was growing on my pituitary gland, which was causing my need to drink water all the time – and many other “spots” on my brain.
“An operation wasn't an option so I was placed on steroids to help with the pressure of the tumor in my brain.”
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Thankfully, after 30 rounds of radiotherapy, Plummer has been dubbed cancer free and must continue taking medication for the rest of his life.
Plummer, who recounted previously being “very active,” noted that the steroid therapy he underwent caused him to gain more than 50 pounds.
“I was always very active and played rugby and cricket weekly which is something I have never been able to return to,” Plummer added. “I took up running and swimming as non-contact exercise and have regained control of my weight.”
In celebration of his successful battle against the brain tumor, Plummer decided to take a charity-funded skydive to benefit Brain Tumour Research.
He took part in the Jump For Hope at Perranporth Airfield in Cornwall last month, and he managed to raise nearly $7,000 on his JustGiving page.
“I have suffered from the devastating effects of Brain Tumors but was one of the fortunate very few to survive but still live with the affects, Brain Tumors kill more children and adults under 40 than any other cancer and just 12% survive beyond five years,” he wrote on the page.
“These terrible statistics, along with devastating stories of loved ones affected by brain tumors, mean that it is important that we work together to #FundTheFight and help raise vital funds for Brain Tumour Research. By taking on this Jump for Hope, I will be doing exactly that.”
Understanding Brain Tumors
Brain tumors account for 85-90% of all primary central nervous system (CNS) tumors, according to the American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO). In 2023, the ASCO estimates that 24,810 adults (14,280 men and 10,530 women) in the United States will be diagnosed with primary cancerous tumors of the brain and spinal cord.
The central nervous system consists of the brain and spinal cord and acts as the main "processing center" for the body's nervous system. The normal function of the brain and spinal cord can become difficult if there's a tumor putting pressure on or spreading into normal tissue close by.
There are many different types of brain and spinal cord tumorsand some of which are more likely to spread into nearby parts of the brain or spinal cord than others. Slow-growing tumors may be considered benign, however, even these types of tumors can lead to serious problems.
Brain Tumor Symptoms
Symptoms of brain tumors, as a whole, are usually caused by increased pressure in the skull. This pressure can stem from tumor growth, swelling in the brain, or blockage of cerebrospinal fluid (CSF), the American Cancer Society explains.
General symptoms may include:
- Blurred vision
- Balance problems
- Personality or behavior changes
- Drowsiness or even coma
Additionally, MD Anderson Cancer Center notes that changes in the ability to smell can also be a sign of brain tumors, and, more specifically, "strange smells" can be a symptom of seizures, which can result from brain tumors.
It's important to note that these symptoms are not exclusive to brain tumors. Still, you should always speak with your doctor if you're experiencing any health problems.
How Radiation Treatment Can Help Treat Brain Tumors
Jonathan Plummer underwent 30 rounds of radiation in his fight against the disease. During radiation therapy, high-energy beams such as X-rays are focused directly on the tumor or cancer cells.
When it comes to radiation to the brain, the treatment itself is not painful and may last 10-30 minutes, according to MacMillan Cancer Support.
Radiation to the brain can lead to side effects, which may include:
- Appetite loss
- Hair loss
The specific side effects people experience may depend on the person's age and health, the radiation dose used, and the size and location of the area targeted.
Talk to your doctor if you experience any of these side effects from radiation treatment, as they may have ways to help manage them.
Radiation treatment is often done in combination with surgery when treating brain tumors. Sometimes during surgery, neurosurgeons are unable to remove all of the tumor. When this happens, radiation therapy becomes another option for surgeons to get the remaining tumor cells.
Board-certified neurosurgeon at Emory University School of Medicine Dr. Kimberly Hoang previously told SurvivorNet that the radiation may help "keep those tumors from growing or shrink them down."
Although radiation therapy is a useful tool when treating brain tumors, it may bring side effects.
"Radiation treatment can cause swelling in the tumor as the tumor 'dies' and the surrounding tissue can also become swollen as the treatment takes effect," Dr. Krishanthan Vigneswaran, a neurosurgeon with UT Health Houston and Memorial Hermann, previously told SurvivorNet.
"This swelling can cause symptoms of headache, nausea, vomiting, and neurological loss of function based on the location of the treated lesion. Similarly, surgical resection (to remove the tumor from the brain) can also induce swelling in the area that was operated upon, however, this is more transient than the effect of radiation," Dr. Vigneswaran added.
Focusing On Mental Health Through Health Challenges
Taking care of your mental health while you are going through a challenge, like a cancer diagnosis, is certainly a process.
People may turn to many different avenues to help them cope, such as traditional therapy, support groups, meditation, and sometimes medical intervention such as antidepressants. When faced with a new challenge, it's important to make sure that these coping mechanisms you have to care for your mental health continue to work throughout the process.
“I think flexibility is really a core of how to manage it,” Dr. Samantha Boardman, a New York-based psychiatrist and author, tells SurvivorNet. "Are your coping strategies that you're using now, are they helpful in the way that they were in the past?"
Dr. Boardman encourages people who may be struggling with their mental wellbeing to take stock of their belief system and ask themselves the following questions:
- Could these beliefs be harming me (like feelings of self-doubt or negativity)?
- Is my mindset holding me back from positive steps forward?
Dr. Boardman suggests working to recognize any negative thoughts that may be making the process of cancer treatment more difficult, and trying to dismantle those to be more "realistically optimistic."
Questions to Ask Your Doctor
- What type of treatment should I seek if I'm struggling with negative thoughts?
- Are there any local support groups for people in my situation?
- How might struggling with mental health affect my treatment?
- Should I consider medical intervention such as antidepressants?
Contributing: SurvivorNet Staff