Key Points about Brain Tumors

  • Most brain tumors develop due to cancer spreading from another area of the body, which is known as a secondary brain tumor.
  • Your specialist will use specialized imaging to diagnose your brain tumor and develop a customized treatment plan.
  • Treatment for a brain tumor often includes a combination of surgery and other therapies, such as chemotherapy or radiation therapy.

Overview

A brain tumor is a growth or mass of abnormal cells that develop in the brain. There are many different types of brain tumors – ranging from benign (noncancerous) to malignant (cancerous). Some types of brain tumors start in the brain – primary brain tumors – while others start in other areas of the body and spread to the brain, which are known as secondary or metastatic brain tumors.

Brain tumor causes 

Cancer occurs when some types of cell start to grow abnormally. These abnormal cells grow more quickly than healthy cells, leading to the formation of a mass (tumor). In many cases, a brain tumor is caused when cancer in another area of the body metastasizes (spreads) to the brain.

Brain tumor risk factors

Factors that can increase your risk of developing a brain tumor include:

  • Being exposed to radiation
  • Having a family history of brain tumors

Brain tumor symptoms

The signs and symptoms of brain tumors vary widely, and can include:

  • Blurry vision
  • Change in type of headaches
  • Changes in personality or behavior
  • Confusion
  • Double vision
  • Headaches that become increasingly more severe
  • Increase in frequency of headaches
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Loss of peripheral vision (seeing to your right and left when your head is straight ahead)
  • Loss of sensation or movement in your arm or leg over time
  • Seizures
  • Trouble hearing
  • Trouble keeping your balance
  • Trouble speaking

Brain tumor diagnosis

Your specialist may recommend one or more of the following tests to diagnose a brain tumor:

  • Neurological exam. Your specialist may use a neurological exam to check your vision, hearing, coordination, balance, reflexes and strength. Results of this exam can help your specialist determine which area or areas of the brain that the tumor is affecting.
  • Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). Your specialist may recommend this type of imaging test to obtain a detailed image of your brain. You may receive an injection of contrast dye prior to undergoing the procedure.
  • Biopsy. Your specialist may remove a small tissue sample from your brain for closer analysis in the lab. The results of the analysis can help your specialist determine your prognosis (chances of a positive outcome) and treatment options.

Brain tumor treatment

Depending on your unique situation, your specialist may recommend one or more of the following treatment options for a brain tumor:

  • Surgery. If your specialist determines that your brain tumor is in an area of the brain that is accessible, they may recommend removing as much of the tumor surgically as possible.
  • Radiation therapy. This treatment uses high-energy beams – such as X-ray or protons – to destroy tumor cells. People typically have to undergo several rounds of radiation therapy treatment for results.
  • Radiosurgery. While not a surgical procedure in the unusual sense, this treatment uses multiple beams of radiation to form a highly focused radiation treatment that destroys tumor cells in a very small area. Specialists typically perform radiosurgery in one treatment, and most people can return home that same day.
  • Chemotherapy. This treatment involves using medications – either oral (by mouth) or intravenous (by vein) – to destroy tumor cells.
  • Rehabilitation. After your brain tumor treatment, you may need to undergo physical, occupational or speech therapy to relearn skills that may have been lost due to treatment.

When should I seek care?

If you experience any of these symptoms, start by voicing your concerns and symptoms to your primary care provider. From there, your doctor may suggest seeing an oncologist for more specialized treatment.