If you have been recently diagnosed with a brain tumor, your doctor has likely already recommended undergoing treatment or a procedure for your brain tumor. Whether you already have your appointment scheduled or are still in the treatment-planning phase of your care, you likely have questions about the different options available. These options can range from surgery to radiation therapy and may include systemic therapy (chemotherapy and immunotherapy) which can be used in conjunction with surgery and/or radiation. The right treatment combination will be determined by your doctor and will depend on your individual condition.
For many patients, the Gamma Knife procedure for a brain tumor is an excellent option. However, you may be unfamiliar with Gamma Knife technology, what conditions it can treat and how the procedure itself works. The following information will help you better understand how Gamma Knife can be used to treat brain tumors. It will guide you through the entire treatment process, giving you an idea of what you can expect before, during and after the procedure.
What Is Gamma Knife?
Before walking through the process of your Gamma Knife treatment, it can be helpful to have a general understanding of the technology and how it works. Despite its name, Gamma Knife is not a surgery and does not involve any incisions. It is actually a specialized form of radiation therapy that uses approximately 200 individual beams of highly focused energy to target just your tumor. This is in contrast to whole-brain radiation therapy, which treats the entire brain with multiple low doses of radiation.
Because your doctor is able to target only your tumor and deliver treatment to a very focused spot, the healthy surrounding tissues are spared. As a result, treatment requires fewer sessions and causes unpleasant side effects than traditional radiation therapy. This is why many doctors will recommend the Gamma Knife procedure for brain tumors, as opposed to whole-brain radiation or traditional surgical methods.
What to Expect Before the Gamma Knife
Your doctor will give you specific instructions for the time leading up to your first Gamma Knife treatment session. It is important that your doctor has an accurate list of all medications and supplements you may be taking. Be sure to adhere to any pre-procedure instructions, as they are for both your comfort and safety.
What to Expect During the Gamma Knife Procedure
Your Gamma Knife procedure for brain tumor(s) may take place within a hospital or another outpatient setting, and you will only need to be there for a few hours. You will want to wear comfortable clothing.
When you arrive for treatment, the first step is placement of the head frame, or a custom mask, which will help ensure your head and neck are stable throughout the entire procedure. The frame placement will involve four small pins hold to the frame in place, and you will be given a topical anesthesia at the pin sites to ensure you remain comfortable.
Once the frame or mask are in place, your doctor and radiology team will take several MRI images to confirm the exact location to be treated. Next, you will be placed on a special table, and the head frame/mask will be secured into place, which will help keep you perfectly still. You will be awake and able to communicate with your doctor throughout the entire treatment process.
The procedure itself typically ranges from 15 minutes to over an hour, and some patients only require a single treatment session. Your individual treatment plan will depend on your condition, the size and location of your tumor, and personal health factors. Your own doctor will be the person who can give you the most precise idea of treatment duration and frequency.
Once your Gamma Knife procedure for your brain tumor is complete, the doctor will remove the head frame/mask. Most patients are released to go home within a few hours of the head frame removal. You will be given post-procedure instructions specific to your particular situation, and your recovery will begin.
What to Expect After the Gamma Knife Procedure
Because of the focused and noninvasive nature of Gamma Knife radiosurgery, you can expect to experience a shorter recovery time, less post-procedure discomfort, and a return to daily activities sooner than other patients following brain tumor treatment.
Immediately following your treatment, you may have some slight discomfort or bleeding at the pin sites, or you may experience headaches or nausea. Your doctor will speak with you and will write you prescriptions for any medications needed to ease your discomfort. These side effects typically only last a few days, and most patients are able to resume all daily activities within a day or two.
Patients experience radiation changes approximately six months following Gamma Knife radiosurgery. Radiation changes include edema (swelling) and is the result of the tumor “dying”. It is a common result of Gamma Knife and most often resolves on its own. Your doctor will monitor you for any signs of swelling during your follow-up appointments. Should swelling occur, and not resolve on its own, it may be resolved using a prescription medication. Some patients may also require additional treatment sessions to completely eradicate the brain tumor, which again will be determined at follow-up appointments.
Carry the Discussion Forward
Self-education is a powerful way to play a more active role in your healthcare and to set your mind at ease about your diagnosis and upcoming treatment. If you find you have questions about Gamma Knife for brain tumors, be sure to bring them up with your doctor at your next appointment. He or she will be able to discuss your personal circumstances and give you an idea of what to expect during your treatment and recovery.