Patients whose cancer has spread to the brain can avoid typical hair loss (alopecia) when treated with newer radiation techniques, thereby improving their quality of life while still controlling their cancer, according to a study presented October 16, 2005, at the American Society for Therapeutic Radiology and Oncology's 47th Annual Meeting in Denver.
Most brain cancer patients whose cancer has spread to the brain receive whole brain radiotherapy. This treatment uses two simple radiation beams on each side of the head to target the cancer. It also causes patients to lose the hair on their head. Since hair loss can be upsetting for patients, doctors are experimenting with new types of radiation therapy to see if they are as effective in treating the cancer while preventing hair loss.
In this study, researchers enrolled 10 patients with stage IV cancer that had spread to the brain. Doctors were able to improve upon whole brain radiation therapy by using intensity modulated radiation therapy. This technique, called IMRT, allowed them to further control the intensity of each beam and shape them to better target the cancer while sparing nearby healthy tissue (including hair follicles), allowing patients to significantly reduce the amount of hair they lost.
Half of the patients in the study reported only slightly noticeable hair loss four weeks after treatment ended, and half had no noticeable hair loss. Patients also didn't experience some of the side effects of whole brain radiation, such as a rash on the scalp or behind the ears. With a short follow-up period, overall survival is 100 percent and only one patient has seen their cancer progress.
"This new study will encourage doctors to consider using this new radiation technique to treat cancer that has spread to the brain," said Todd Scarbrough, M.D., lead author of the study and a radiation oncologist at the MIMA Cancer Center in Melbourne, Florida. "Although hair loss may seem trivial, losing one's hair can be difficult for a patient who is already depressed from the diagnosis and the strain of the treatments. I'm hopeful this new study will help us improve the quality of life for these patients."