Treatments for brain cancer

Standard treatments

  • Brain tumours are usually treated by:
  • Surgery
  • Chemotherapy
  • Radiotherapy
  • Steroid therapy

Your treatment will depend on the location, stage, grade and type of cancer cells you have. The stage looks at the size of your cancer and if it has spread from where it started. The grade of the cancer can tell if your cancer grows quickly or slowly. You can have a low, moderate or high grade cancer.


There are many different types of surgical treatments for brain tumours. Some of them include:

  • Brain biopsy: a sample of the brain tumour is taken and examined under a microscope.
  • Guided or stereotactic biopsy: for tumours deep inside the brain a rigid head frame and needle are used to get a tissue sample.
  • Craniotomy: the skull is opened to remove the brain tumour.
  • Shunts: a drainage tube is put into the brain to drain fluid causing pressure.

Your doctor will advise you on which surgery is suitable for you. The side-effects of surgery will also be explained before the operation. For more information on the different types of brain surgery, see the section in Macmillian about brain tumour treatment.


Chemotherapy is the use of drugs to cure or control cancer. Some patients are given chemotherapy to shrink their tumour, slow the growth or control their symptoms. Your doctor will tell you if you are suitable for this treatment.

Many cancer patients receive a combination of two or three chemotherapy drugs. Chemotherapy can also be given before or after radiotherapy and surgery. The drugs are either injected into your bloodstream or given in tablet form. Your doctor might decide to give you intrathecal chemotherapy. This is when chemotherapy is put directly into the cerebrospinal fluid (CSF). See the booklet Understanding Chemotherapy and Other Cancer Drugs, which you can download from our "Publications about cancer treatment side effects" list on the right hand side of this page, for more information.


Radiotherapy is the use of high-energy rays that are aimed directly at the tumour to kill or shrink the cancer cells. The rays come from a machine called a linear accelerator. Nowadays, there are more precise ways to give radiotherapy. These include three-dimensional conformal radiotherapy (3D-CRT) and intensity modulated radiotherapy (IMRT). They are programmed to match the precise shape of the tumour and aim high-energy rays at it, while doing the least damage to nearby normal cells.

Radiotherapy can be used after surgery to kill any remaining cells. A special mask will be made for you so your head does not move each time you get treatment. See our booklet Understanding Radiotherapy, which you can download from our "Important cancer information booklets" list on the right hand side of this page, for more information.

Steroid therapy

Steroids are drugs made naturally in the body. They can greatly reduce any inflammation and swelling. It is common to have steroids as part of your treatment. Your doctor may give you steroids to reduce swelling or pressure in your brain. These drugs will be gradually reduced as you improve. There are side-effects to steroids but your doctor will explain these beforehand.

Newer treatments

These newer treatments are being used for brain tumours in some hospitals in Ireland and the UK. Your doctor will let you know if they are suitable for you and also available to you.

  • Stereotactic radiotherapy: This is a high dose of radiotherapy. Several beams of radiation are given at the same time. Your doctor will tell you if this radiotherapy is suitable for you.
  • Stereotactic radiosurgery (gamma knife): This is like stereotactic radiotherapy but its planning normally takes longer. This is because hundreds of beams are aimed at the tumour at once. Only one session of stereotactic radiosurgery is needed but this can take up to 6 hours.

For more information, please see our factsheet on Advanced Radiotherapy Treatments (pdf 332KB).

Advanced treatment

Advanced cancer means that the cancer has spread from the area where it started. If it spreads in the area around the brain, it is called local spread. It can also spread to other areas of the body. This is called secondary cancer or metastatic cancer.
Sadly, it is usually not possible to cure advanced cancer. Treatment can be given to control the cancer and to improve your quality of life. Treatments can involve steroids, surgery, chemotherapy and radiotherapy.

You may also be seen by the palliative care team at this time. This team are there to help with your symptoms and to support you and your family through your treatment.

Learn more about treatments

Side effects

The type of side-effects you get will depend on the type of treatment, the dose, the duration and your own general health. Some treatments may cause symptoms like nausea, vomiting, loss of appetite or hair loss. Many treatments cause fatigue. You may also experience headaches, drowsiness, dizzy spells but these will gradually improve once treatment is over. Your doctor will discuss any likely side-effects beforehand.

For more about coping with side-effects, download any of the "Publications about cancer treatment side effects" listed on the right hand side of this page.

Learn more about side effects

Clinical trials

If a treatment looks like it might be helpful, it is given to patients in research studies called clinical trials. Trials may be taking place at the hospital you are attending. If you are interested in taking part, talk to your doctor. He or she can tell you if the trial would suit you or not.

Learn more about clinical trials

Call our National Cancer Helpline

Freephone 1800 200 700 to talk to a specialist cancer nurse
It's open Monday-Thursday from 9am to 7pm and Friday from 9am to 5pm