Pituitary Tumor: Radiation Therapy

In radiation, high-energy beams of X-rays or particles target cancer cells to kill them. It may be used to:

  • Treat pituitary tumors that return after surgery or that could not be fully removed during surgery
  • Shrink tumors in people who are not healthy enough for surgery
  • Treat pituitary tumors that cause problems or fail to respond to medication

Note that radiation can be a very slow process. It may take years to get results.

What to Expect With Radiation Therapy

Before radiation, you will have imaging scans. This allows your surgeon to see the size and shape of your tumor. Radiation will focus solely on the tumor, which reduces damage to nearby tissue. You may also have a mold, mask or frame made to hold you in the same position for each treatment. This can keep you from moving.

Types of radiation for pituitary tumors include:

  • Conventional radiation. A machine sends the beams directly to the tumor. You may receive treatment five times per week for several weeks.
  • Radiosurgery. Also called stereotactic radiosurgery or gamma knife treatment, this is not really surgery. Rather, it is a type of high-beam radiation that consists of one dose of treatment. It can be repeated, if needed. It targets the tumor and delivers radiation directly into the tumor tissue. As a result, there is less damage to nearby tissues. This type of radiation comes with fewer side effects compared to standard radiation. But, when the tumor is near important nerves, radiosurgery cannot be used.
  • Proton beam radiation. This kind of radiation uses special equipment to deliver an energy beam directly on the tumor. This reduces effects on nearby tissue. Only some medical centers offer this type of radiation due to the needed equipment.

Side Effects of Radiation

Ask your physician what to expect after radiation. You may have side effects, such as:

  • Irritated, dry, red and blistered skin in the treated area
  • Temporary or permanent hair loss on the part of your head where the radiation passes through
  • Tiredness or weakness
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Headaches
  • Confusion
  • Seizures
  • Speech problems

In addition, radiation may harm the healthy part of your pituitary gland. This can cause it to stop working.

Note that side effects may get worse as your treatment continues. In some cases, side effects may not show up for years after you finish treatment. Ask your physician what side effects to watch for and if any warrant medical attention. They can recommend ways to prevent and ease bothersome side effects.