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The facts about brain tumors

It’s difficult to think of a health condition more ominous than a brain tumor. And while challenging to treat, the outlook isn’t necessarily bleak.

Like other tumors, brain tumors are either benign (noncancerous) or malignant (cancerous). Benign tumors tend to grow slowly and usually don’t invade surrounding tissues. But because they can place pressure on sensitive areas of the brain and cause serious health problems, they require treatment as well. Cancerous brain tumors may be either primary or secondary. Primary tumors, accounting for one quarter of all brain tumors, begin in the brain. Most brain tumors are secondary, or metastatic, meaning that cancer cells migrated to the brain from cancer elsewhere in the body, most commonly from cancers of the lung, skin, breast and colon.

Warning signs

A wide variety of symptoms may suggest a brain tumor. These include:

  • seizures, especially if you don’t have a history of seizure
  • headaches (usually worse in the morning)
  • unexplained nausea and vomiting
  • changes in speech, vision and hearing
  • dizziness or problems with balance or walking
  • weakness or loss of sensation in the hands, arms, feet or legs
  • changes in mood, personality, memory or ability to concentrate

The above symptoms are not sure signs of a brain tumor and may suggest other neurological disorders.

Path to diagnosis

Doctors perform a neurological exam to check for alertness, balance, coordination and reflexes as well as vision, speech and hearing. Depending on the results, the patient may undergo one or more tests using computed tomography (CT), magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), positron emission tomography (PET) or other types of brain scans. Other tests may include an angiogram, X-rays or a spinal tap. The only way to confirm a brain tumor diagnosis is with a biopsy, in which a sample of tissue is examined under a microscope.

Treatment options

To combat brain tumors, doctors use surgery, radiation and chemotherapy or a combination of these treatments. Sometimes, a brain tumor can’t be removed through surgery because of its size or proximity to critical areas of the brain. Patients with these tumors typically have radiation therapy (using X-rays, gamma rays or protons) to destroy tumor tissue. Chemotherapy, which uses drugs to attack cancer cells, is often part of the treatment plan. These drugs may be taken by mouth, by injection or intravenously. Surgeons may also implant chemo-therapy “wafers” in the brain. As these wafers dissolve, they release anticancer drugs.

No one knows what causes brain tumors; however, certain risk factors have emerged, such as having a family history of brain tumors and being male, Caucasian and over age 70. Exposure to radiation or certain chemicals like formaldehyde, vinyl chloride and acrylonitrile also increase risk. Studies investigating whether brain injuries or cell phone use may be factors have not found an association.

Experts continue to explore new surgical techniques to remove tumors, new ways to target tumor destruction and new avenues to deliver anticancer drugs. While it’s true that treating brain tumors requires aggressive action, the prognosis is often hopeful.