Key Points about Brain Tumors & Cancer

  • Not all brain tumors are cancerous.
  • Brain cancer is a growth of abnormal cells that begins in some area of the brain.
  • Doctors use imaging tests, biopsy, neurological exams and physical exams to diagnose brain cancer.
  • Treatment for brain cancer may involve surgery to remove the brain tumor, chemotherapy and/or radiation therapy.


Brain Tumors

Not all brain tumors are cancerous. There are many cases when benign tumors are present in the brain. They can still cause a unique set of symptoms and will still need addressed by a team of medical professionals.

Malignant (cancerous) brain tumors grow quickly and spread rapidly. They’ll spread in to healthy tissue and take over. Since your brain is resting in the confines of your skull, this can cause an increase in pressure and cause your brain to start functioning incorrectly.

Traditionally, tumors that develop in the brain do not spread throughout your body the way other cancers might.

Brain Cancer

Brain cancer is a tumor or growth of abnormal cells in the brain. In some cases, brain cancer begins in the brain (primary brain cancer); in other cases, brain cancer spreads from another area of the body (secondary brain cancer or metastatic brain cancer).

Some types of brain cancer grow very slowly, while others grow more quickly. Some of the most common types of brain cancer are:

  • Astrocytoma - the most common type of brain tumor, this type of cancer begins in small, star-shaped cells known as astrocytes. In most cases of adults, astrocytomas often form in the cerebrum, which is the largest brain of the brain.
  • Glioblastoma multiforme - also known as glioblastoma or GBM, this is an aggressive, fast-growing type of brain cancer that begins in the supportive tissue of the brain.
  • Meningioma - also known as meningeal tumors, this type of brain cancer begins in the cells of the membrane that surrounds the brain. Meningiomas make up about 15% of all brain tumors, and they are most common in women between the ages of 30 and 50.

Brain cancer causes

Brain cancer is caused by a mutation (change) to the DNA of the brain. In many cases, a brain tumor is caused when cancer in another area of the body metastasizes (spreads) to the brain.

Brain cancer risk factors

The following factors may increase your risk for developing brain cancer:

  • Being exposed to ionizing radiation, such as in previous radiation treatment for cancer or from atomic bombs
  • Having a family history of brain cancer
  • Having a family history of certain genetic syndromes

Brain cancer symptoms

Signs and symptoms of brain cancer may include:

  • Blurred vision or double vision
  • Changes in personality or behavior
  • Frequent or severe headaches
  • General confusion with day-to-day activities
  • Hearing changes
  • Losing feeling or ability to move an arm or leg
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Seizures
  • Trouble speaking
  • Trouble with balance

Brain cancer diagnosis

Your oncologist may use one or more of the following tests to diagnose brain cancer:

  • Physical exam - your doctor will perform a complete physical exam – including asking questions about your health history, your symptoms and related risk factors.
  • Neurological exam - your doctor may order a neurological exam to check how well your nervous system – which includes your brain, spinal cord and nerves – are functioning. This exam checks your vision, hearing, balance, reflexes and more.
  • Biopsy - in this test, your doctor removes a biopsy (small tissue sample) from your brain. This sample is sent to the laboratory, where a specialist closely checks the biopsy for abnormalities.
  • Computerized tomography (CT) scan - your doctor may order a CT scan of your head. This specialized imaging test uses a series of X-ray images to create detailed images of the inside of your body.
  • Ultrasound - your doctor may order an ultrasound, an imaging test that uses sound waves to create detailed images of your head.

Brain cancer treatments

Depending on your personal health history, the extent of your brain cancer and other factors, your oncologist may recommend one or more of the following treatment options:

  • Surgery - if possible, you may undergo surgery to remove the tumor, along with a margin of healthy cells.
  • Chemotherapy - this treatment involves the use of medications to destroy cancer cells. Chemotherapy drugs can be delivered via a pill taken orally (by mouth) or an intravenous, or IV, liquid (by vein). You may need to undergo chemotherapy after surgery so that your doctor can destroy any cancerous cells that couldn’t be removed surgically.
  • Radiation therapy - this treatment uses high-powered energy beams to destroy cancerous cells. You may need to undergo radiation therapy to destroy any cancerous cells that couldn’t be removed surgically.

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.

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