Medications are typically a part of brain tumor treatment. They’re often used along with other types of treatments. Types of medications used include chemotherapy drugs, corticosteroids, and seizure medications.

A brain tumor is an area of brain tissue where cells begin to grow and divide uncontrollably. Tumors can be either noncancerous or cancerous.

If possible, surgery is used to treat many brain tumors. But various medications may be used as well. This article explores the different medications used to treat brain tumors.

Can brain tumors be treated with medication alone?

If you have a brain tumor, it’s unlikely that you’ll only receive medication as a part of your treatment plan. In fact, you may have several types of treatment, which can include some combination of surgery, radiation therapy, or medication.

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Medications for brain tumors can be used to shrink the tumor or to alleviate symptoms. Here’s a closer look at the different types of medications.


Chemotherapy (chemo) uses drugs that target the growth and division of cancer cells. When cancer cells can’t divide properly, they eventually die. Chemo is often used in combination with other treatments such as surgery or radiation therapy.

There are a few ways that chemo may be used for brain tumors:

  • to shrink a cancer before surgery (neoadjuvant therapy)
  • to help destroy remaining cancer cells after surgery (adjuvant therapy)
  • as the main treatment for a cancer, especially if:
    • surgery isn’t possible
    • your cancer is more advanced
    • your cancer has come back

For many cancers, chemo is given directly into your bloodstream (intravenous [IV]) or by mouth (oral). While some chemo drugs can be given this way for brain tumors, many can’t due to the blood-brain barrier (BBB).

The BBB is a natural barrier that protects your brain from potentially harmful substances, including some medication. Because of it, chemo may need to be given in other ways, including:

  • into the cerebrospinal fluid (intrathecal)
  • directly into the brain, sometimes using a dissolvable wafer that’s placed during surgery

Some examples of chemo drugs that can be used alone or in combination for brain tumors are:

  • carmustine
  • lomustine
  • procarbazine
  • temozolomide
  • vincristine

Have a discussion with your doctor when choosing chemo drugs for your treatment. You’ll want to weigh the pros and cons of each medication regarding such factors as toxicity, side effects, and your outlook.

Side effects of chemotherapy

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Targeted therapy

Targeted therapy uses drugs that target certain markers on cancer cells. Because these drugs are more specific than other treatments such as chemo, they’re also often less harmful to healthy cells.

According to the American Cancer Society, targeted therapy drugs still aren’t widely used for brain tumors. But, they may be beneficial for specific types of cancers or when standard chemo drugs haven’t been effective.

Bevacizumab (Avastin), which is given by IV infusion, and everolimus (Afinitor), which is given orally, are two examples of targeted therapy drugs that can be used for brain tumors.

Side effects of targeted therapy

Specific side effects can vary by targeted therapy drug. Some of the common side effects of targeted therapy for brain tumors may include:

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Corticosteroids are medications that reduce inflammation. They’re used to lower swelling in the brain, which can lead to increased intracranial pressure that can cause symptoms such as headache and nausea.

Corticosteroids are taken orally. The most common corticosteroid used for brain tumors is dexamethasone. Ideally, steroids are given on a short-term basis, as long-term use can lead to unpleasant side effects.

Side effects of corticosteroids

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Seizure medications

It’s possible for some brain tumors to lead to seizures. Because of this, seizure medications can be used to help lower the risk of seizures in people with a brain tumor.

Seizure medications are taken orally. Some examples of commonly used seizure medications for brain tumors are:

Side effects of seizure drugs

The specific side effects that you may experience can vary by seizure drug. Some of the common general side effects of seizure drugs are:

  • feelings of fatigue or weakness
  • dizziness
  • headache
  • nausea
  • blurry vision
  • changes in weight
  • mood disorders
  • cognitive difficulties, which can include issues with thinking, memory, or attention
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Along with medications, there are several other treatments that are used for brain tumors. These include:

Potential future treatments being researched

Immunotherapy is a potential future treatment for brain tumors. It harnesses your body’s immune system to attack cancer cells while leaving healthy cells alone. This treatment works well on other cancers but traditionally hasn’t been effective against brain tumors due to the BBB.

Phase 2 clinical trials are underway to examine the merits of immunotherapy for brain tumors.

Are brain tumors curable?

Treatment of brain tumors can be challenging for several reasons:

  • The brain is a crucial organ, and a surgeon may not be able to safely remove a tumor depending on its location.
  • The BBB reduces the effectiveness of many types of conventional drug treatments.
  • The unique environment and characteristics of some brain tumors may make them more resistant to both conventional and novel treatments.

That said, brain tumors can sometimes be removed completely using surgery, radiation therapy, or medications when they’re caught early. This can become more challenging if a tumor is more advanced or is growing quickly.

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Your outlook can depend on many factors, including:

  • the type of brain tumor you have
  • the location of the tumor
  • the size of the tumor
  • how fast the tumor is growing
  • the type of treatment used and how the tumor responds to it
  • your age and overall health

According to the National Cancer Institute’s SEER database, the overall 5-year relative survival rate for cancerous brain tumors is 33.8%. This can be misleading, though, as survival rates vary widely based on the type of cancer you have.

The tables below show the 5-year relative survival rates for select types of adult and childhood brain tumors, according to the American Cancer Society.

5-year relative survival rates for adult brain tumors

Tumor type5-year relative survival rate: Ages 20445-year relative survival rate: Ages 45545-year relative survival rate: Ages 5564
Diffuse astrocytoma73%46%26%
Anaplastic astrocytoma58%29%15%
Anaplastic oligodendroglioma76%67%45%
Ependymoma or anaplastic ependymoma92%90%87%

5-year relative survival rates for childhood brain tumors

Tumor type5-year relative survival rate
Pilocytic astrocytomaabout 95%
Diffuse astrocytomaabout 80%85%
Anaplastic astrocytomaabout 25%
Glioblastomaabout 20%
Oligodendrogliomaabout 90%
Ependymoma or anaplastic ependymomaabout 75%
Embryonal tumorsabout 60%–65%

What is a relative survival rate?

A relative survival rate gives you an idea of how long someone with a specific condition may live after their diagnosis compared with someone without the condition. For example, a 5-year relative survival rate of 74% means that someone with that condition is 74% as likely to live for 5 years as someone without the condition.

It’s important to remember that these figures are estimates. Talk with a doctor about your specific situation.

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Medications are one of the treatments used for brain tumors. They can be used to shrink the tumor or to manage symptoms associated with the tumor.

The types of medications used for brain tumors include chemotherapy, targeted therapy, corticosteroids, and seizure medications. These are often used along with other brain tumor treatments such as surgery and radiation therapy.

Your outlook for brain tumors can vary greatly based off of factors such as the type of tumor you have as well as your age and overall health. Your medical care team can give you a better idea of your specific outlook.