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Chemotherapy for Brain Tumors

Chemotherapy is the use of drugs to:

  • Destroy cancer cells remaining after surgery,
  • Slow the tumor’s growth, or
  • Reduce symptoms

Chemotherapy is occasionally recommended for the treatment of a brain tumor. It is only effective in treating some types of brain tumors, such as:

When chemotherapy is part of a treatment plan, doctors at the Johns Hopkins Comprehensive Brain Tumor Center usually administer it after surgery. Sometimes, it is administered at the same time as radiation therapy.  The delivery method and the length of the treatment depends on the type of tumor and where it is located.

Types of chemotherapy drugs:

There are two primary types of chemotherapy drugs:

  • Drugs that kill cancer cells (cytotoxic drugs): These drugs usually reach cells (cancerous and normal) throughout the body. Called systemic chemotherapy, this is the most common type of chemotherapy.
  • Drugs that prevent the cells from reproducing (cytostatic drugs): These drugs, better known as targeted therapy, are a newer type of chemotherapy. They identify and attack cancer cells (the target) with minimal harm to normal cells. They prevent the growth and spread of cancer cells.

Uses of targeted therapies:

Targeted therapies are used more often to treat brain tumors than systemic chemotherapy. They may be used to treat metastatic brain tumors and recurrent brain tumors. For example,

  • Herceptin® may be used for breast cancer that has metastasized to the brain
  • Tarceval® may be used for the most common type of lung cancer (non-small cell lung cancer) that has metastasized to the brain.

Targeted therapies may also be used to treat some primary brain tumors. For example, Avastin may be used to treat some types of glioma when other treatments do not work.

Some targeted therapies are available at the Johns Hopkins Comprehensive Brain Tumor Center through clinical trials. Learn more about brain tumor clinical trials at Johns Hopkins.

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Delivery methods for chemotherapy:

Chemotherapy can be administered as pills (orally), intravenously (IV, by vein), or directly into the cavity left after surgical removal of a brain tumor (GLIADEL® wafers). Systemic chemotherapy enters the bloodstream and can reach cancerous, and normal, cells throughout the body.

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