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Chemotherapy for children with a brain tumour

Chemotherapy is one way your child may be treated for a brain tumour. Chemotherapy uses drugs to destroy tumour cells by interrupting or stopping their growth. Chemotherapy can be used on its own, with radiotherapy, or it may be used before or after surgery.

How does chemotherapy work?

Our bodies are made up of cells that divide to reproduce and repair themselves. Cytotoxic drugs used in chemotherapy disturb the dividing process of both tumour cells and healthy cells. Healthy cells are better able to repair themselves, whilst tumour cells are more likely to die.

Why is chemotherapy given?

Depending on your child's type of brain tumour, their age, and general health, chemotherapy may be given:

  • Before surgery - to shrink a tumour to make it easier to operate on
  • After surgery - to prevent a tumour from returning
  • To treat a tumour that has returned
  • To shrink a tumour that cannot be operated on
  • To prevent further growth of a tumour
  • Before, during or after radiotherapy.

How is chemotherapy given?

Your child may be given chemotherapy in one of a number of ways:

By injection into a vein (intravenously)

This is the usual method and may be given via a central line, a PICC line or a portacath. The type of 'line' your child has will depend on factors, such as your child's age and tumour type. The line is put in under general anaesthetic and stays in place until your child's chemotherapy treatment has finished. You will be taught by your child's health team how to care for the line.

As tablets or liquid to be swallowed (orally)

This is a less common method. If your child is given chemotherapy by this method, wear disposable gloves when handling the medication, particularly if you are pregnant. Do NOT crush the tablets.

Chemotherapy drugs can have an unpleasant after-taste - giving you child flavoured chewing gum or a sweet afterwards can help to disguise the taste.

How long will chemotherapy last?

Your child's health team will plan and tailor your child's treatment based on the type of tumour your child has, your child's age, the amount of tumour removed (where relevant), and your child's general health.

It could vary from daily chemotherapy for a while as a day-case in hospital, to several days on a ward every few weeks.

These cycles of treatment can be given over 3 months to 12 months, or even longer.

Will my child need to stay in hospital?

Chemotherapy is often given as an outpatient treatment, which means that your child won't usually have to stay in hospital overnight.

What side-effects might my child have?

Side-effects vary from child to child and according to the drugs they have been given. As chemotherapy temporarily acts on healthy cells as well as tumour cells, it may cause some unpleasant, short-term side-effects, commonly including:

  • Lowered immunity - This means your child may become more likely to get infections. Precautions can be taken to deal with this increased risk. You should also check which immunisations are safe to give your child at this time.
  • Anaemia (and tiredness) - Symptoms of anaemia include extreme tiredness, shortness of breath and looking 'washed out' or pale. The tiredness will wear off once treatment has finished, but it may take a few months for their energy levels to return to normal. Your child may feel tired even if they are not anaemic.
  • Nausea - Your child may feel sick (nausea) or be sick (vomit) after treatment. Not all chemotherapy drugs have this effect. Anti-sickness tablets or liquid medicine can be given.
  • Hair loss - Not all chemotherapy causes hair loss - it depends on which chemotherapy drugs your child has. It is usually temporary, but the hair may grow back differently to how it was before. Any hair loss increases the risk of sunburn. Make sure your child's head is covered if exposed to the sun. For information about free wigs and other head coverings, download the full fact sheet at the bottom of this page.
  • Sore mouth (oral mucositis) - Inflammation of the inside of the mouth is a possible side-effect that is more likely with high doses. This condition can cause mouth ulcers or a sensation similar to when you burn your mouth from eating or drinking something too hot.
  • Effects on skin - Your child's skin may become more sensitive (for example, to the sun and to chlorine) with chemotherapy drugs, or they may develop rashes or changes in skin colour. Take care in the sun or in swimming pools.
  • Visual problems - Some chemotherapy drugs can affect the eyes causing blurred vision, dry eyes or sensitivity to light. These symptoms will tend to disappear a few months after the chemotherapy treatment has ended. They can be temporarily helped by using eye drops for dry eyes and wearing sunglasses for sensitivity to light. If blurred vision continues after this time, take your child to an opticians for an eye test.
  • Taste, appetite and digestion - Sometimes, chemotherapy causes changes to taste and appetite. It can also cause diarrhoea or constipation.
  • Future fertility - Some chemotherapy drugs may cause temporary or permanent infertility (an inability to have children). It is very important to discuss any effects on your child's fertility with your child's health team before they start treatment. Possible options for children who have reached puberty, include sperm banking (boys) or egg freezing (girls). For girls, this will depend on how urgently they need to start treatment for their brain tumour. For children who have not reached puberty, freezing of testicular or ovarian tissue may be available in some NHS Trusts.

How will we know if chemotherapy has worked?

During and after treatment, your child will be monitored using scans to check how well the treatment is working, e.g. for any changes to their tumour.

Get your free brain tumour information pack

Our FREE Brain Tumour Information Pack has been designed to help you through this difficult time, to guide you through the healthcare system, answer your questions, and reassure you that you're not alone so that you feel confident when discussing treatment and care options with your medical team.

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