Any cancer diagnosis can be frightening, but perhaps none more than the discovery of a malignant brain tumor. One reason brain cancer inspires fear is that surgery to remove the tumor can be difficult and risky, potentially even causing permanent damage. But at Rocky Mountain Cancer Centers, we offer patients an alternative to open surgery for brain tumor: non-invasive stereotactic radiosurgery (SRS).
Despite its name, stereotactic radiosurgery isn’t actually surgery and involves no incision. Instead, many high-dose beams or arcs of X-ray radiation are precisely directed at the tumor. Computed tomography (CT) and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) are used to pinpoint the exact location and shape of the tumor, which helps minimize damage to surrounding tissue. That precision allows for the delivery of a higher, more effective dose of treatment to the tumor site than conventional radiation, resulting in less damage to healthy tissue. One recent study found that, among patients with brain tumors that had originated somewhere else in the body (i.e. brain metastases), those treated with stereotactic radiosurgery had less cognitive deterioration months after treatment than patients who had conventional radiation.
Rare diagnosis, challenging treatment
This year, an estimated 23,880 adults will be diagnosed with a malignant primary brain tumor, according to the American Society of Clinical Oncology. A primary brain tumor is one that originates in the brain. Cancers that start somewhere else in the body and spread to the brain are more common.
Conventional surgery to remove brain tumors, can be especially challenging. When removing cancers in other parts of the body, surgeons can take a “margin” of normal tissue around the tumor to ensure that all cancer cells are gone, often without posing any problems. For example, a tumor on the liver and many healthy nearby cells can be removed without jeopardizing survival.
But with brain cancer, depending on where the tumor is located, open surgery comes with the risk of disrupting essential functions such as speech, memory, or motor skills.
In addition to small brain tumors – both cancerous and non-cancerous, and those that originate in the brain and those that have spread from other parts of the body – stereotactic radiosurgery can be used to treat spinal cord tumors, blood vessel abnormalities in the brain, certain small tumors in the lungs and liver, and neurologic issues such as movement disorders.
Stereotactic radiosurgery is not recommended for larger brain tumors of if there are certain nerves running through the treatment area that could be damaged. But for many patients, SRS is a welcome alternative, or addition, to conventional treatment for brain a brain tumor. Not every patient is eligible for SRS, so please check with your treating oncologist to determine if you may be a candidate.
SRS can be used during conventional radiation therapy or as a tumor-targeted “boost” at the end of treatment. In some patients,stereotactic radiosurgery also is used along with open surgery to remove the tumor. But often, particularly with smaller tumors, it can be used instead of surgery.
Less risk, less down-time with Stereotactic Radiosurgery
Because it isn’t surgery, patients receiving stereotactic radiosurgery treatment usually don’t have to be hospitalized. At Rocky Mountain Cancer Centers, we provide the treatment on an outpatient basis at our Aurora and Lakewood clinics.
Because stereotactic radiosurgery is less damaging to healthy tissue, it can be delivered in higher doses. This often means patients need only one treatment. Plus, the risk of infection is significantly lower than for surgery because there is no incision.
After the treatment, which can take from 15 minutes to two hours, patients go home, and most are able to resume their usual activities within a day or two.