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Whole Brain Radiation

Posts: 4
Joined: Jan 2001

My partner was diagnosed with two metastatic brain tumors in November. In December he had the larger of the two brain tumors (about the size of a small lemon) removed and is now ready to start radiation. We've spoken with about a half dozen Dr.s (radiologists, oncologists etc.) and they all concur that whole brain radiation is the best treatment. I guess this is OK, but I would sure love to hear from anyone who has any first hand experience with any kind of radiation to the brain.. thanks

Posts: 335
Joined: Aug 2000

Hello dgunvalson, Just read your post about whole brain radiation. My brother had 30 weeks of radiation for a glioblastoma. He took 3 decadron pills per day (steriod) to prevent swelling. The doctors tried to cut back on the steriod but found when they did, my brother got fuzzy and too sleepy. He never got sick to his stomach and did not burn. He did loose his hair on that side of his head. The back of his ear got very sore, be sure to pay attention to your friends ears during this radiation and put aloe on them, front and back. Prepare for tiredness after a few treatments, an afternoon nap or two. I wish you both the best of luck and a speedy recovery back to good health. Nancy

Posts: 4
Joined: Jan 2001

To Nancys:

Thanks for your response. It is good to hear from someone who is/has gone through this (via your brother). I am always a bit suspect when the Dr.'s say "Oh, there are no real bad side effects from the treatment."
Three years ago when he had radiation for a metastesis on his lymph node he was burned very bad. Although, I have consistantly heard that whole brain radiation is not as bad as many other radiated areas Thanks for the advice on the aloe. He is applying some as I am writing this. He had his third treatment today. He will continue daily for the next 3 1/2 weeks. Thanks so much.

Posts: 335
Joined: Aug 2000

Hello DG, Just read your post. I am sure you have been online researching brain tumors. I found two good sites while trying to gleen information about my brother's tumor. One was www.neurosurgery.mgh.harvard.edu/abta and the other was www.tbts.org. The harvard site gave the best information. Again, best of luck.. I will add you both to my prayer list. Prayer is POWERFUL. Nancy

Posts: 4
Joined: Jan 2001

Thanks Nancy... I will check out the web sites. I've perused several sites, but I don't think I have looked at these..Thanks for the good thoughts and prayers.. Back at you... Hope things are going as best as can be expected with your brother.

Posts: 2
Joined: Mar 2001


My partner also has a primary brain tumor oliogodendroglioma. She recently had surgery in November (Dr removed most of tumor). She went through radiation 1 month later and has now finished radiation and is undergoing chemotherapy.

The radiation made her very tired, upset stomach near the end of treatment. She had 3 dimensional radiation. She lost hair around the areas of the tumor (a significant amount).

Have the Dr's said anything about following up with chemo treatment? My partner is 30yrs old and we leave in New York metro area.
Would like to hear from you.

Best Regards

gdpawel's picture
Posts: 525
Joined: May 2001

The initial approach to using radiation postoperatively to treat brain metastases, used to be whole brain radiation, but this was abandoned because of the substantial neurological deficits that resulted, sometimes appearing a considerable time after treatment. Whole brain radiation was routinely administered to patients after craniotomy for excision of a cerebral metastasis in an attempt to destroy any residual cancer cells at the surgical site. However, the deleterious effects of whole brain radiation, such as dementia and other irreversible neurotoxicities, became evident.

This raised the question as to whether elective postoperative whole brain radiation should be administered to patients after excision of a solitary brain metastasis. Current clinical practice, at most leading cancer centers, use a more focused radiation field that includes only 2-3cm beyond the periphery of the tumor site. This may involve therapy once a day for about six weeks and allows radiation up to 60gy. This begins as soon as the surgical incision has healed.

My wife received postoperative whole brain radiation in addition to focal radiation to the local tumor bed for a large (3.5cm) solitary brain metastasis in the summer of 1998. Reactions to radiation may include fatigue, hair loss, scalp irritation and nausea. Long term side effects may include long term fatigue, memory loss, mental deterioration and hormonal deficiencies. The worst kind of side effect is radiation necrosis. This means that part (if radiation is focused) or most (if radiation is diffused) of the brain can die from the effects of radiation.

My wife began developing brain radiation necrosis within 6-10 months after whole brain radiation, confirmed by an "enhanced" MRI in June of 1999. Her twenty fractions of whole brain radiation resulted in diffuse necrotic effects. Because of previous platin-type drug treatment (carboplatin), it lowered her central nervous system's resistance to future radiation treatments and made side effects more pronounced.

There are a number of radiation treatments for therapy (Stereotatic, Gamma-Knife, Brachyradiation and IMRT to name a few). These treatments are focal and not diffuse. The whole brain radiation treatment my wife received was not the proper treatment for her. In her case, tumors greater than 2cm in size should be excised and depending on the surgeon's success (his was 99%), focal radiation to the local tumor bed is indicated (a more focused radiation field that includes only 2-3 cm beyond the periphery of the tumor site). Her radiation oncologist's ideas were different from those of the neurosurgeon and gave her twenty fractions of whole brain radiation to a perfectly good brain. The radiation oncologist had not told us of any of the late-delayed reactions that could happen from whole brain radiation.

Professional liability in the field of radiation oncology may result from inadequate explanation to the patient of the intent, risks, side effects and expected results of radiation treatment. A patient must always be fully informed whenever risky protocols are followed. It is "vital" that the radiation oncologist coordinate the radiation treatments with surgeons so as to ensure that any treatments follow accepted protocol. This hadn't occurred! Inappropriate technique or dosage may subject a patient to increased risk of side effects and complications.

The radiation oncologist at our local home town hospital took it upon himself to give my wife 5 fractions (at 2.0gy per) of focal radiation to the local tumor bed, plus 20 fractions (at 2.0gy per) of whole brain radiation over a 35 day period. The risk of neurotoxicity from whole brain radiation is not insignificant and this approach is not indicated in patients with a solitary brain metastasis. Observation or focal radiation is a better choice in solitary metastasis patients. Whole brain radiation can induce neurological deterioration, dementia or both. Those at increased risk for long-term radiation effects are adults over 50 years of age. However, whole brain radiation therapy has been recognized to cause considerable permanent side effects mainly in patients over 60 years of age (my wife was 66 years of age). The side effects from whole brain radiation therapy affect up to 90% of patients in this age group. Focal radiation to the local tumor bed has been applied to patients to avoid these complications.

Radiation necrosis may result from the death of tumor cells and associated reaction in surrounding normal brain or may result from the necrosis of normal brain tissue surrounding the previously treated metastatic brain tumor. Such reactions tend to occur more frequently in larger lesions (either primary brain tumors or metastatic tumors). Radiation necrosis has been estimated to occur in 20% to 25% of patients treated for these tumors. Some studies say it can develop in at least 40% of patients irradiated for neoplasms following large volume or whole brain radiation and possibly 3% to 9% of patients irradiated focally for brain tumors that developed clinically detectable focal radiation necrosis. In the production of radiation necrosis, the dose and time over which it is given is important, however, the exact amounts that produce such damage cannot be stated.

Aggressive treatment like surgical resection and focal radiation to the local tumor bed in patients with limited or no systemic disease can yield long-term survival. In such patients, delayed deleterious side effects of whole brain radiation therapy are particularly tragic. Within 6 months to 2 years patients can develop progressive dementia, ataxia and urinary incontinence, causing severe disability and in some, death (all symtoms my wife developed). Delayed radiation injuries result in increased tissue pressure from edema, vascular injury leading to infarction, damage to endothelial cells and fibrinoid necrosis of small arteries and arterioles (my wife suffered a stroke to the left basal ganlia area of the brain, confirmed by an "enhanced" MRI). Other long-term effects can include loss of vision, development of secondary maligancies (the risk is 16 times greater) and endocrine disturbances. Late delayed radiation necrosis is often progressive and irreversible, leading to severe disability or death (a reaction that happened to my wife).

Even the study performed by Dr. Roy Patchell, et al, in the early 90's has been recognized incorrectly, sometimes, in the radiation oncology profession. The study was thought to have been the difference between surgical excision of brain tumor alone vs. surgical excision & whole brain radiation. It was a study of whole brain radiation of a brain tumor alone vs. whole brain radiation & surgical excision. The increased success had been the surgery. And they measured "tumor recurrence", not "long-term survival". Patients experiencing any survival could have been dying from radiation necrosis, starting within two years of whole brain radiation treatment and documented as "complications of cancer" not "complications of treatment". There was less "tumor recurrence" but not more "long-term survival". In my wife's case, tumors recurred (she had 16 times greater risk of developing secondary maligancies).

Patchell's study, conducted over an eight year period at numerous institutions was given to only 146 eligible patients. It convincingly showed there was no survival benefit or prolonged independence in patients who received postoperative whole brain radiation therapy. It never mentioned the incidence of dementia, alopecia, nausea, fatigue or any other numerous side effects associated with whole brain radiation. The most interesting part of this study were the patients who lived the longest. Patients in the observation group who avoided neurologic deaths had an improvement in survival, justifying the recommendation that whole brain radiation therapy is not indicated following surgical resection of a solitary brain metastasis.

The diagnosis of radiation necrosis may be difficult to confirm. An MRI may show a contrast-enhancing mass with extensive white matter alterations and hyperintensity of the periventricular white matter. Cerebral cortical atrophy is manifest as enlarged cerebral sulci and ventricular dilatation. Many patients have a mixture of tumor and radiation necrosis and a biopsy may be necessary to distinguish it. Neither symptoms nor radiographic findings clearly distinguish radiation necrosis from tumor. The FDG-PET scan and T1-SPECT studies have been useful in differentiating radionecrosis from recurrent tumor.

An EEG, three enhanced MRI's (over a period of ten months) and a Pet Scan, all showed increased diffuse white-matter injury (radiation necrosis). Her additional twenty fractions of whole brain radiation resulted in diffuse necrotic effects.

The EEG showed generalized diffuse slowing that was significant with global encephalopathy. It is most commonly seen in toxic metabolic and degenerative conditions. There appeared to be a real amount of focal right sided slowing which would indicate cortical dysfunction on that side. The MRI's showed the ventricles overall were prominent and there was widening of the sulci consistent with cerebral atrophy (wasting away of brain cells and tissues). There was diffuse, abnormal signal intensity within the periventricular white matter, consistent with post radiation changes. The signal abnormality within the white matter appeared slightly increased compared to her prior studies. The Pet Scan showed globally decreased radiotracer uptake within the brain, bilaterally, consistent with involutional change and prior radiation therapy.

A recurrence of a cerebral metastasis was very likely to happen in the future. It was observed via an "enhanced" MRI and Pet Scan. Four, mm-sized tumors were found in and around the previously excised cerebeller tumor and because of my wife's weakened condition, Gamma-Knife would have been the best medical protocol. She received Gamma-Knife treatment. During the whole time of her admission at the hospital, the doctors kept referring to her continued diffuse white-matter injury (radiation necrosis or radiation encephalopathy), as if she may be too far advanced in that injury to survive much longer. She died at the age of 68 from cardio-pulmonary failure. Minutes before she expired, her temperature was normal, her blood pressure was nromal but her pulse was 150 (tachycardia). Her heart was racing to keep up with the lack of brain function and finally quit. The white matter disease she experienced and caused her death was "primarily" a result of whole brain radiation.

Again, whole brain radiation is the most damaging of all types of radiation treatments and causes the most severe side effects in the long run to patients. In the past, patients who were candidates for whole brain radiation were selected because they were thought to have limited survival times of less than 1-2 years and other technology did not exist. Today, many physicians question the use of whole brain radiation in most cases as one-session radiosurgery treatment can be repeated for original tumors or used for additional tumors with little or no side effects from radiation to healthy tissues. Increasingly, major studies and research have shown that the benefits of radiosurgery can be as effective as whole brain radiation without the side effects.

Posts: 7
Joined: Jan 2004

My husband has stage 4 non-small cell lung cancer which metastasized to his brain. He had a cranitomy to remove the one lesion and were advised to get prophylactic whole brain radition. (also second opinion advised for the radiation) We refused at the time He underwent 6 sessions of taxol and carbo for the lung tumor. It got reduced 90 per cent. But, 3 months later brain MRI showed 2 more brain tumors and the lung tumor was slightly larger. So, again we were advised to get the whole brain radiation which we felt we should to stop the brain tumors because how many were going to happen so we are undergoing the whole brain radiaiton to stop the microscopic cancer. He is getting 250 rads/day for 15 days. What can we expect? We are told that the radiation takes a few weeks to do its job. He is really tired from the radiation. Does the fatigue go away? Is the dosage low enough to prevent necrosis later? Please anyone who has experienced this let us know. Thanks.

Anonymous user (not verified)

there will most likely be necrosis, its sometimes difficult to tell the difference between the scar tissue and the cancer growth, but a compatent dr. will be able to monitor that with mri scans the tiredness does go away. i had a steriotactic boost in 1993 and am pretty much back to my regular self, i do become tired mentally a lot more than i did before chemo and radiation and3 brain surgeries but i am in remission now for almost 10 yrs! i had an oligo dendroglioma. God bless you and your husband! wishing you all the best! essyboo

Posts: 7
Joined: Jan 2004

Its good to hear you are doing so well. My husband had whole brain radiation for non-small cell lung cancer brain metastasis. Did you have whole brain radiation? And, do you suffer any long term side effects? Thanks.

Posts: 1
Joined: Dec 2004

I had whole-brain radiation for non-small cell lung cancer brain metastasis also. I don't know what "long-term" is but my last treatment was in January. My hair is coming back slowly, but I think fear and anxiety is the worst side effect. My husband and I thought I was cancer-free after my lung was removed ..I even went back to jogging 4 months after my surgery. I must admit, the surgery was easier to come back from than this radiation and drugs I need to take now.

Posts: 5
Joined: Jul 2005

my best friend was just diagnosed with 19 lesions that have mesastasis to her brain from non-small cell lung cancer and has just started whole brain radiation (15 times). She has only been 3 times and every time she comes back she has lost more short term memory. They have given her a mixed and conveluded diagnosis (3 weeks to optimal 5 months to live). No one will tell us if the memory will come back or get worse etc. I guess my biggest question to you is it worth it? I just want her to enjoy the rest of her life without compromising the quality.
I have searched and searched for information on a case that is as severe as hers with survival rates and cannot find anything.
Any suggestions or feedback would be greatly appreciated.

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