Various therapies used to treat a brain tumor are accompanied by side effects. They differ from person to person, even among those who receive the same treatment. Ask your health care team what side effects to expect and how to prevent or manage them, then report new symptoms when they start. Addressing side effects as soon as possible may stop them from escalating and help you be more comfortable.
Alopecia (Hair Loss)
Surgery and radiation therapy typically result in hair loss in the area being treated. In addition, some drug treatments may cause loss of hair on the head, face and other parts of the body. Be gentle with your scalp and hair. Ask when it’s safe to wash your hair and how best to do it. Your doctor may recommend using only warm water initially, and then mild shampoo with few perfumes and dyes, such as baby shampoo.
Some treatments may cause diarrhea. When mild, diarrhea is an inconvenience. If left untreated, it can lead to serious problems, such as dehydration, loss of important nutrients, weight loss and fatigue. Over-the-counter medicines and supplements may help, but ask your doctor before taking anything. If diarrhea is severe, your doctor may prescribe other medications.
Your body needs extra energy to repair the healthy tissue damaged by cancer treatment, resulting in fatigue. Additionally, other side effects of treatment, such as pain, diarrhea and vomiting, can cause or worsen it. Increasing activity and performing regular exercise (even 10 minutes of walking per day) will help you feel more energetic.
Certain cancer treatments can affect the ability to start or maintain a pregnancy. For both men and women, fertility options become much more limited after treatment starts, so it’s wise to talk to your doctor about fertility preservation before you begin any type of treatment, if possible.
Surgery and radiation therapy, as well as pressure caused by the tumor itself, may cause headaches. Try over-the-counter pain relievers and get plenty of rest. If your headache is severe, keep a pain log to share with your doctor. Include the time of day your headache starts, how long it lasts and where it occurs (forehead, temples, back of head, etc.).
Drug therapies may cause mouth sores that form in the lining of the mouth, affecting the gums, tongue, roof of mouth or lips. Pain may be mild to severe, making it difficult to talk, eat or swallow.
Try to keep your mouth and lips moist. Avoid spicy, acidic or rough-textured foods. Over-the-counter medications may help relieve discomfort. Your doctor may suggest a special mouth rinse or may prescribe a medication that coats the lining of your mouth or can be applied topically.
Nausea and Vomiting
Drug therapy and radiation therapy may cause you to feel sick to your stomach or vomit. Because these side effects are much easier to prevent than to control once they’ve started, talk with your doctor about taking antiemetics (anti-nausea drugs). Peppermint and ginger lozenges may settle your stomach. Severe vomiting can lead to dehydration and interrupt treatment. If necessary, talk with your doctor about ways to make you more comfortable.
Your scalp and skin may become red, dry and irritated during and after treatment. Avoid soaps, lotions and makeup that contain perfumes or dyes. Ask your doctor to recommend specific products that are safe to use.
Managing the Challenges of the Tumor Itself
When a tumor grows into or presses on an area of the brain, it may stop that part of the brain from working the way it should. As a result, you may feel different physically and emotionally. Managing these complex side effects is important. Tell your health care team immediately if you experience any of these conditions so they can help you maintain a better quality of life.
Memory and Cognitive Changes
A brain tumor and its treatments may affect your ability to think, reason, concentrate, process and remember information. Fatigue can zap the energy you need for thinking and remembering. These changes may make it difficult for you to focus on tasks or follow conversations, plan or organize your thoughts, learn new things or remember names and dates.
Let friends and family know you’re having trouble remembering things, and ask for their help. A daily planner may help you keep track of events and appointments. Don’t multitask. Instead, focus on one thing at a time.
Talk with your doctor about your concerns. He or she likely will schedule an evaluation to help determine the best ways to train or retrain the brain to perform cognitive skills that may have been lost or affected during treatment.
An interference with brain function may cause unexpected changes in personality and feelings. Your moods may differ, and you may deal with anxiety, anger or stress differently. You may feel depressed. Depression is more complex than just feeling sad or hopeless and can result from the tumor, its treatments or the diagnosis.
Spend time with family and friends who can help you cope better with daily life. Join an online or in-person support group for brain tumor survivors. Perform regular physical activity, breathing exercises or meditation. Consider talking with a licensed therapist. If you have thoughts of hurting yourself or others, talk with your doctor immediately.
Muscle weakness, changes in motor skills and difficulty with speech may occur. See Survivorship Plan for more information about the benefits of physical, occupational and speech therapies.