Do What You Can to Ease Side Effects of Treatment for a Brain Tumor

It's likely that you will have physical concerns. Your cancer may cause symptoms. Your treatment may cause side effects. In this section, you'll learn more about how to respond to some of the most common side effects and symptoms from a brain tumor and its treatment.

Here are some common side effects from treatment for a brain tumor and how to ease them. You may not have all of these. We've listed them in alphabetical order so you can find help when you need it.

Anemia (low red blood cell levels)

Throughout your treatment, your doctor will test your blood. One thing he or she is checking is your red blood cell count. Red blood cells carry oxygen throughout the body. If your body does not have this oxygen, you may feel tired. Decreased red blood cell counts can be caused by small amounts of blood loss, by chemotherapy or radiation, or by the cancer itself. This is called anemia.

If your doctor tells you that you have anemia, take these actions to feel better:

  • Take short rests when you're tired. Avoid long naps during the day so that you can sleep well at night.

  • Add mild exercise, such as walking, to your daily routine. It may help you sleep better.

  • Balance activity with rest. Save your energy for important tasks.

  • Drink plenty of water. Dehydration adds to fatigue.

  • Talk with your doctor about medications or treatments that may help manage your anemia.

Appetite loss

Eating well during cancer treatment can help you maintain your strength, stay active, and lower your chances of infection. When you're being treated for cancer, a diet high in calories and protein is best. The problem is that side effects of treatment can change the way food tastes or reduce your appetite. Try these tips to stimulate your desire to eat:

  • If you can, eat foods high in protein several times a day. These foods include: milk, cheese, cottage cheese, yogurt, meat, fish, eggs, beans, peanut butter, and nuts. Protein helps build and repair tissue, and cancer treatments cause you to use more protein than usual.

  • If you can, eat high calorie foods to help you maintain your weight, such as margarine or butter, sugar, honey, jams, jellies, cream cheese, dried fruit, gravies or sauces, mayonnaise, and salad dressing.

  • Get plenty of fluids to help control your body temperature and improve food elimination. In addition to water, fruit juices, and other liquids, try these foods to increase fluids: gelatin, pudding, soups, Popsicles, and ice cream.

  • Eat small meals throughout the day instead of 3 large ones.

  • Keep snacks handy to eat when you are hungry.

  • Eat with friends or play your favorite music at mealtime to boost your appetite.

  • Eat your biggest meal in the morning. Many people getting treatment for cancer find this is when they have their biggest appetite.

  • If you can, increase your activity level. Doing so may stimulate your appetite.

On days you don't feel like eating at all, don't worry about it. Try again the next day. If you find your appetite doesn't improve in several days, talk with your doctor or nurse.

Bleeding or bruises

Your doctor will take blood samples from you for blood tests throughout your treatment. One thing he or she is checking for is your platelet levels. These blood cells help with blood clotting. Many types of chemotherapy can cause low platelet levels, as can the cancer itself. A lowered platelet level is called thrombocytopenia. Without enough platelets, your blood may not be able to clot. You may have symptoms such as nose bleeds or bruising.

If your doctor tells you that your platelet count is low, take these actions to stay healthy:

  • Protect your skin from cuts, scrapes, and sharp objects.

  • Shave with an electric razor.

  • Use a soft toothbrush to prevent bleeding gums.

  • Take steps to prevent constipation, which can lead to hemorrhoids.

  • Call your doctor if you develop a rash, bleeding, or bruising.

Cold intolerance

During radiation therapy for a brain tumor you may find that you become more sensitive to cold. Try these coping tips:

  • Wear layers so you can stay warm and comfortable throughout the day.

  • Wear a hat, scarf, and gloves, if you need to.

  • Ask your friends and family to run errands for you when it's cold outside.

  • Drink warm liquids.

Hair loss (alopecia)

Losing your hair can be upsetting because baldness is a visible reminder that you are being treated for cancer. Keep in mind, your hair will grow back after chemotherapy; however, it may not grow back after radiation. Try these coping tips:

  • Consider cutting your hair before treatment starts.

  • Think about getting a wig, hat, or scarf before your hair loss starts. That way, you can get a wig that matches your hair.

  • Because your scalp may be more sensitive to temperature and sun, protect it with sunscreen and hats or scarves.


Headache pain might be from the tumor, from the surgery, from radiation or radiation necrosis. Try these tips to ease pain:

  • Take your pain medications regularly; don't wait for your pain to become severe.

  • Change your activity level. See if you feel better if you rest more or move around more — either may help.

  • Distract yourself with soothing music, funny videos, or computer games.

  • Use relaxation techniques (like yoga or meditation), or guided imagery exercises. Ask your doctor or nurse where you can learn more about these.

  • You may want to take acetaminophen instead of aspirin for a headache. 

Increased infections

Your doctor will take blood samples from you for blood tests throughout your treatment. One thing he or she is checking for is your white blood cell count. Many types of chemotherapy can cause low white blood cell counts. Lowered white cell counts is called neutropenia. Without enough white blood cells, your body may not be able to fight infection.

If your doctor tells you that your white blood cell count is low, take these actions to stay healthy:

  • Avoid crowds or people with colds.

  • Wash your hands often or use hand sanitizer throughout the day to kill germs.

  • Call your doctor right away if you have any of these signs of infection: a temperature of 100.5°F (38°C) or higher, severe chills, a cough, pain, a burning sensation during urination, or any sores or redness.

Mouth sores (mucositis)

Some types of chemotherapy may cause these. Mouth sores may hurt and make eating an unpleasant experience.

To prevent sores, take these actions:

  • Brush your teeth after meals and before bedtime; floss every day.

  • Keep your mouth and lips clean and moist.

  • Use sugar-free candies or gums to increase moisture in your mouth.

If you get sores in your mouth, take these actions to ease the pain:

  • Avoid alcohol and mouthwashes containing alcohol because they may irritate the sores.

  • Avoid hot, rough, or spicy foods because they may irritate the sores.

  • Avoid tobacco because it may irritate the sores. Smoking can also make you more susceptible to sores.

  • Ask your doctor about topical mouth medications.

  • Take over-the-counter pain medication, such as Tylenol (acetaminophen), if necessary.

  • Call your doctor or nurse if your temperature reaches 100.5°F (38°C) or higher.

Nausea or vomiting

Nausea or vomiting as a result of chemotherapy or radiation treatment for cancer may range from barely noticeable to severe. It may help you to understand the different types of nausea:

  • Acute-onset nausea and vomiting.  This occurs within a few minutes to several hours after chemotherapy. The worst episodes tend to be 5 to 6 hours after treatment, and the symptoms end within the first 24 hours.

  • Delayed-onset vomiting. This develops more than 24 hours after treatment.

  • Anticipatory nausea and vomiting. These are learned from previous experiences with vomiting. As you prepare for the next dose of chemotherapy, you may anticipate that nausea and vomiting will occur as it did previously, which triggers the actual reflex.

  • Breakthrough vomiting. This occurs despite treatment to prevent it. It requires additional treatment.

  • Refractory vomiting. This occurs after 1 or more chemotherapy treatments; essentially, you're no longer responding to antinausea treatments.

To prevent nausea, take these actions. Most nausea can be prevented:

  • Ask your doctor about getting a prescription medicine to control nausea and vomiting. Then make sure you take it as directed. If you are vomiting and cannot take the medicine, call your doctor or nurse.

  • If you have bothersome nausea and vomiting even though you are taking your medicine, call your doctor or nurse. Your medicine can be changed.

To help ease nausea or vomiting if you have it, try these tips:

  • Try eating foods and drinking beverages that were easy to take or made you feel better when you've had the flu or were nauseated from stress. These may be bland foods, sour candy, pickles, dry crackers, ginger ale, flat soda, or others.

  • Do not eat fatty or fried foods, very spicy foods, or very sweet foods.

  • Eat room-temperature or cold foods. The smells from hot foods may make your nausea worse.

  • Ask your doctor or nurse if he or she can help you learn a relaxation exercise. This may make you feel less anxious and more in control, and decrease your nausea.

  • Ask your doctor or nurse about using acupressure bands on your wrists, which may help decrease your nausea.

Sex drive changes (libido)

Radiation therapy may decrease your desire to have sex. Feelings of depression from having cancer or fatigue from other treatments can also have a negative impact on your sexual desires. Here are some ways you may cope:

  • Talk with your partner about changes in your desire to have sex.

  • Discuss it with your doctor and other members of your health care team. They may be able to refer you to a sexual rehabilitation program.

  • Request a referral to a counselor who specializes in sexual problems.

Tiredness and fatigue

Tiredness is a very common symptom and side effect from chemotherapy and radiation treatments. You may feel only slightly tired, or you may suffer from extreme fatigue.

Taking these actions may help increase your energy level. Fatigue can last 4 to 6 weeks after treatment ends:

  • Take action to treat a poor appetite because eating improperly can make you tired.

  • If your fatigue is severe or chronic, ask for help with routine tasks that can drain your energy, such as grocery shopping or housework. Some people reduce their hours at work.

  • Follow the tips under anemia.

  • Sometimes, a stimulant medication can be helpful 

Thinking and remembering problems

You may have problems with concentration and memory from radiation, chemotherapy, or the cancer itself. Being tired can make this worse.

Taking these actions may help:

  • Make lists and write down important information.

  • Use other tools to help organize your life, such as calendars, pill dispensers, or alarm clocks.

Let your medical team know about any cognitive changes you have and ask what can be done about them. Treatment to help manage cognitive changes may be especially important after treatment ends. Dementia medications may help with memory problems after radiation therapy for brain cancer.