When we hear of brain tumors, we often lump all these into the same category. In actuality, there are two very different types of brain tumors, called either the "primary" or the "metastatic."
A primary brain tumor is one that starts in the head, and can be either cancerous or non cancerous. The metastatic brain tumor is one that is caused by cancer elsewhere in the body and has spread to the brain. Metastatic brain tumors are always cancerous. (source: RTanswers.org)
If your elder parent has recently been diagnosed with a metastatic brain tumor, his physician may recommend radiation therapy to shrink the size of the tumors, kill the tumor, or to relieve the symptoms caused by the tumor. For an adult child who is the caregiver of an elderly parent, this is what you can expect before, during, and after radiation therapy.
Before the treatment
Before any kind of treatment, your parent will visit with a cancer specialist, called an "oncologist." The oncologist will explain the degree of the cancer and how the cancer may be best treated. This is also the time that the caregiver should ask lots of questions about the side effects of the treatment, what kind of medication is recommended during the treatment, and if any special needs should be considered during the course of treatment.
Since you will be hearing all kinds of information and instructions, it is highly recommended to bring a notebook along to this appointment to record what has been said. If you are jointly sharing the care of your elder parent with siblings, this article will show you how to develop a family charting system to record important details about the procedure.
After the visit with the oncologist, your parent will then be sent to a special part of the hospital to be fitted for a mesh mask. The mask fits snugly over the face, and will be marked up with bulls eye-like dots that mark the areas to be radiated. Your parent may also be started on a steroid therapy at this time which will help to reduce the swelling caused by radiation therapy.
The treatment itself
Radiation therapy isn't something that is done only once. In many cases, radiation therapy will take place 5-6 days a week over the period of several weeks. These treatments happen in a special cancer clinic or hospital on an outpatient basis. For each scheduled day of the treatment, your parent must be driven to this clinic. Appointments are usually scheduled so tightly that your parent will not have much of a wait before it's his turn to go into the treatment room.
The treatment itself is very straight forward. Your parent is walked to a special radiation room where he is arranged comfortably on a reclining bed. The mesh mask is placed over the face, and the radiation is then directed towards the marked areas on the mask. This appointment takes just a few minutes and then the patient is free to go home.
Once a week however, your parent will see the oncologist in charge who will assess how the patient is feeling by asking a number of questions.
While some patients can eat just before a treatment, if your parent has a problem with heartburn or acid reflux, it might be best to wait until after the treatment is finished before eating a meal. Going out to lunch is a nice way to finish up the visit.
After the radiation therapy
So, now what happens?
Radiation of the brain does have some side effects. These can include swelling which leads to headaches, and a slight feeling of nausea or dizziness. The steroids prescribed by the oncologist will help mitigate the swelling and an anti nausea pill can help settle the stomach. As far as the dizziness, there really isn't anyway to prevent that from happening which is why, for your parent's safety, they should walk with a cane and not be permitted to drive during the course of the treatment.
Some patients may experience a slight sunburn above the ears, which looks a little pink. Most everyone loses their hair. For women, a scarf or turban can help keep the head protected and warm. Men might prefer a ball cap or knit stocking.
The other side effect you may notice and is certainly not one that might happen in all cases, is that your parent may lose the ability to multitask. For example, instead of cooking dinner, talking on the phone, and trying to wash dishes simultaneously, your parent may find that now he can only tackle one task at a time.
Everyone reacts a little different to brain radiation therapy, and what we are seeing in our family may be different than yours. What's important to remember is to keep track of your observations and questions, and communicating them promptly to your parent's physician.