OverviewA brain tumor is a growth or mass of abnormal brain cells. Yet, brain tumors do not always indicate brain cancer. There are several different types of brain tumors. These fall under the main categories of benign (noncancerous) and malignant (cancerous). Brain tumors are further categorized according to their site of origination. If brain tumors develop initially in your brain, then they are called primary brain tumors. Brain tumors that develop in your brain as a result of cancer spreading from other parts of the body are referred to as secondary or metastatic brain tumors. Metastatic brain tumors are more common than primary brain tumors.
SymptomsBoth benign and malignant brain tumors cause symptoms and are sometimes fatal. Considering that brain tumors grow and press on nearby areas of the brain, most brain tumor symptoms occur in areas controlled directly by the brain.
These symptoms include headaches, blurred vision, loss of peripheral vision, difficulty hearing, issues with speech, loss of balance, nausea, vomiting, seizures, confusion, fatigue, personality or behavior changes, and loss of sensation or movement in your limbs. Nevertheless, the size, location, and rate of growth of your brain tumor determine how many of these symptoms you experience, if any.
Risk FactorsBrain tumors can occur at any age, but your risk increases as you age. Certain types of brain tumors occur almost exclusively in children. Likewise, if you have a family history of brain tumors you are at a greater risk of developing a brain tumor.
Forms of radiation exposure such as radiation therapy to treat cancer or resultant radiation from atomic bombs can cause brain tumors. Electromagnetic fields from power lines and radiofrequency radiation from cellphones and microwaves may be linked to causing brain tumors, but this has yet to be proved.
Additionally, if you currently have any form of cancer, then it is possible for the cancer to spread to your brain and develop a metastatic brain tumor. However, cancers of the breast, colon, kidney, lung, and skin spread to the brain most often.
DiagnosisDoctors have a decent number of tests to use to diagnose your brain tumor. These include a neurological exam, magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), computerized tomography (CT), positron emission tomography (PET), and brain biopsy.
- Neurological Exam - this exam can vary depending on the symptoms you are experiencing, but it usually involves checking your balance, coordination, reflexes, hearing, and vision.
- Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) - this test yields images of your brain which may reveal the size and location of your brain tumor. Your doctor may also introduce a dye into your body intravenously to track how well the dye flows through your brain.
- Computerized Tomography (CT) - also called a CT scan, gives your doctor images of your brain to observe for a tumor. This test is also employed to check other areas of your body for cancer.
- Positron Emission Tomography (PET) - commonly called a PET scan, seeks out malignant tumors in your brain and body. The PET scan does this by taking pictures of any part of the body that is using glucose. Malignant tumors show up brightest in these pictures because they are more active than healthy cells, and thus require more glucose.
- Brain biopsy - may be performed as a final diagnostic test or as part of an operation to remove your brain tumor. Either way, under the guidance of CT or MRI, your surgeon will drill a small hole into your skull and insert a needle through the hole into your brain. Then, your surgeon will extract a small piece of your brain tumor with the needle and observe it under a microscope to check for signs of cancer.
TreatmentWith adequate diagnosis, your neurosurgeon should know both the size and location of your brain tumor. This information is vital to choosing which treatment is right for you. Your treatment may involve one or more of the following: surgery, radiation therapy, radiosurgery, chemotherapy, targeted drug therapy, and rehabilitation.
- Surgery - If your brain tumor is small and accessible, then your surgeon will remove as much of it as possible. If your tumor is less accessible or located in a sensitive area of your brain, then your surgeon may remove part of it or choose not to operate at all. Brain tumor surgery poses serious risks like infection, bleeding, or loss of function.
- Radiation Therapy - Less invasive than surgery, but still effective, radiation therapy kills tumor cells with high-energy beams. Your surgeon can focus radiation directly at the site of your brain tumor or to your entire brain. The type of radiation therapy used determines which side effects you will experience, but headaches, fatigue, and scalp irritation are most common.
- Radiosurgery - This same-day procedure is technically not surgery, but targets your brain tumor like surgery. Radiosurgery provides a highly focused form of radiation treatment to kill tumor cells in a small area. This is made possible by directing multiple beams of radiation to your brain tumor which combine into a large dose of radiation.
- Chemotherapy - Taken orally or intravenously, chemotherapy drugs will fight the cancer that caused your brain tumor or the cancer that resulted from your brain tumor. Chemotherapy is sometimes implemented as one or more disk-shaped wafers left in place of your brain tumor after it is surgically removed. Nausea, vomiting, and hair loss are common side effects of chemotherapy.
- Targeted Drug Therapy - Targeted drug therapy blocks certain abnormalities of cancer cells and causes them to die. These drugs are specialized to treat benign and malignant brain tumors. Most are given intravenously.
- Rehabilitation - Since brain tumors can press on sensitive areas of the brain that control your senses, consciousness, and motor skills, it may be necessary to relearn these skills after receiving treatment for your brain tumor. Therefore, your surgeon may prescribe you physical therapy, occupational therapy, speech therapy, and possibly tutoring.