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What to Know About Chemotherapy for Brain Tumors

Chemotherapy uses anticancer drugs to kill cancer cells. The drugs are made to attack and kill cancer cells that divide rapidly. While cancer cells divide rapidly, so do some normal cells. Because of this, chemotherapy can also affect those rapidly dividing normal cells in the body. Normal cells may be affected based on these factors:

  • Dose and types of drugs used

  • The person getting the drugs

Types of drugs used for brain tumors

Temodar (temozolomide) is the chemotherapy drug that doctors prescribe most often for many types of brain tumors. Your doctor may also prescribe these chemotherapy drugs:

  • BCNU (carmustine)

  • Camptosar (irinotecan)

  • CCNU (lomustine)

  • Matulane (procarbazine)

  • Oncovin (vincristine)

  • Paraplatin (carboplatin)

  • Platinol (cisplatin)

  • VP-16 (etoposide) 

Sometimes doctors combine different chemotherapy drugs. These combinations are named using the first letter of each of the drugs. In the combination PCV, for instance, these drugs are taken together:

  • Matulane (procarbazine)

  • CCNU (lomustine)

  • Oncovin (vincristine)

How you take chemotherapy

Chemotherapy is usually given as pills, into a vein in the arm (IV), or directly into the cerebrospinal fluid that bathes the brain, which is known as intrathecal chemotherapy. (A special type of chemotherapy, known as Gliadel, is a dissolvable wafer containing carmustine [BCNU] that is placed on or next to a tumor during surgery.)

Doctors usually give chemotherapy in cycles. That means you take chemotherapy drugs for a certain amount of time. Then you have time off to recover from the treatment. This pattern of treatment and recovery will continue over the course of the chemotherapy. You may have chemotherapy treatment in one of these places:

  • Outpatient part of the hospital

  • Doctor’s office

  • Chemotherapy clinic

  • Your own home

Potential side effects of chemotherapy for a brain tumor

Side effects of chemotherapy depend on the type and amount of drugs you take and the length of your treatment. Because chemotherapy drugs kill rapidly dividing cells, the drugs can damage healthy cells that divide quickly, such as those in the bone marrow (where new blood cells are made). This can result in low white blood cell numbers, which may increase your risk of infection. Platelets help the blood to clot. If your platelet count is low, you may bruise or bleed easily. Fatigue is also possible because of a lack of red blood cells, leading to anemia.

You may want to ask your doctor or nurse in advance about the specific side effects of the chemotherapy drugs and how best to prevent or manage them. These are some other side effects of chemotherapy:

  • Hair loss

  • Loss of appetite

  • Mouth sores

  • Nausea and vomiting

  • Diarrhea

Some chemotherapy drugs also affect fertility and cause damage to the lungs or nerves. Your doctor and chemotherapy nurse will review the drugs and their side effects.

It's helpful to keep a log of side effects and share them with your medical team. This information can help you and your team manage uncomfortable symptoms in a timely manner. 

Most of these side effects go away after treatment is complete. Your doctor may prescribe drugs to help reduce the side effects so that you can recover from them more quickly. 



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