About Brain Tumors

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About Brain Tumors


What is a brain tumor?


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What are the symptoms of a brain tumor?

What are the different categories of brain tumors?

What causes brain tumors?

How can a brain tumor affect me?

Who do I see for my brain tumor care?

What should I do before my clinic appointment?

What are some of the tests involved?

What are some of the treatments for brain tumors?

What is the role of alternative medicine?

Where can I find support and get help to cope with my diagnosis and treatment?

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What is a brain tumor?

A brain tumor is a group (or mass) of abnormal cells in your brain. Many different types of brain tumors exist, and their clinical behavior can vary from benign (noncancerous) to malignant (cancerous). Brain tumors can be divided into two general categories:

  1. Primary brain tumors: those that begin in your brain
  2. Secondary (otherwise known as metastatic) brain tumors: those that have spread to your brain from other cancerous sites in your body.

Brain tumor treatment options depend on the type of brain tumor, as well its location, its size, and the symptoms it is causing.


What are the symptoms of a brain tumor?

The symptoms of a brain tumor vary widely and depend on the specific type of brain tumor, location, rate of growth, and size. There are no specific symptoms that only occur due to a brain tumor, but signs and symptoms may include

  • new onset or change in pattern of headaches
  • headaches that gradually become more frequent and more severe
  • new onset of seizures
  • gradual loss of sensation or movement in an arm or a leg
  • difficulty with balance
  • speech difficulties
  • personality or behavior changes
  • unexplained nausea or vomiting
  • blurred vision, double vision, or loss of peripheral vision
  • hearing problems

When to see a doctor

All of the symptoms listed above can be caused by things other than brain tumors. Make an appointment with your doctor if you have signs and symptoms that concern you.


What are the different categories of brain tumors?

Primary Brain Tumors: Brain Tumors that Begin in the Brain

Primary brain tumors originate in the brain itself or in tissues near it, such as in the membranes that cover the brain (meninges), cranial nerves, pituitary gland, or pineal gland. Primary brain tumors begin when errors (mutations) occur in the DNA of normal cells. These mutations cause cells to multiply abnormally and to survive in conditions that normal cells would not. The result is a mixed mass of abnormal cells, which forms a tumor. Primary brain tumors are much less common than are metastatic brain tumors, in which cancer begins elsewhere and spreads to the brain. Many different types of primary brain tumors exist and are typically named after the type of cells they are thought to originate from. Examples include

  • acoustic neuromas (otherwise known as a vestibular schwannoma)
  • chordomas
  • ependymomas
  • germ cell tumors
  • gliomas (includes glioblastomas, gliosarcomas, astrocytomas, oligodendrogliomas, and oligoastrocytomas)
  • medulloblastomas (includes primitive neuroectodermal tumors, or PNETs)
  • meningiomas
  • pineal-region tumors (includes pineocytomas and pineoblastomas)
  • pituitary tumors (includes pituitary adenomas)
  • schwannomas

Secondary (metastatic) Brain Tumors

Metastatic or secondary brain tumors result from cancer that starts elsewhere in your body and then spreads (i.e., metastasizes) to your brain. Secondary brain tumors most often occur in people with a known history of cancer. In rare cases, a metastatic brain tumor may be the first sign of cancer that began elsewhere in your body. Metastatic brain tumors are far more common than primary brain tumors. Although any cancer can spread to the brain, the most common types are

  • breast cancer
  • colon cancer
  • lung cancer
  • kidney cancer
  • melanoma


What causes brain tumors?

In most cases, we still do not understand what causes the genetic mutations that can lead to primary brain tumors. The following are some explanations of the risk factors that can increase the chance of developing a brain tumor:

  • Age. Your risk for developing a brain tumor increases as you age. Brain tumors are most common in older adults. However, a brain tumor can occur at any age. Certain types of brain tumors, such as medulloblastomas and juvenile pilocytic astrocytomas, occur almost exclusively in children.

  • Family history of brain tumors. A small portion of brain tumors occur in people with a family history of brain tumors or a family history of genetic syndromes that increase the risk of brain tumors.

  • Exposure to radiation. People who have been exposed to a type of radiation called ionizing radiation have an increased risk of brain tumor. Examples of ionizing radiation include radiation therapy used to treat cancer and radiation exposure caused by nuclear accidents or disasters. More common forms of radiation, such as electromagnetic fields from power lines and radiofrequency radiation from cellular telephones have not yet been proved to be linked to brain tumors. Conclusive studies will not be available for at least a decade.

  • Immunosuppression. If your immune system is severely depressed due to disease (i.e., HIV) or powerful medications designed to shut down your immune system (i.e., those taken after an organ transplant), it can increase your chances of developing a brain tumor or other cancers.

The following are not risk factors for brain tumors: alcohol, diet, maternal tobacco smoking, traffic-related air pollution, or drugs/medications.


How can a brain tumor affect me?

The symptoms caused by a brain tumor depend on which part of your brain is affected. Symptoms can include

  • Seizures. A brain tumor can cause irritation to the brain that can result in a seizure. These seizures can affect your entire body (i.e., generalized seizures) or only parts of your body (i.e., focal seizures).

  • Headaches. A brain tumor can cause increased pressure within the brain or cause a build up of fluid within the brain (hydrocephalus), either of which can lead to headaches. In some cases, headaches can be severe and unrelenting and may be accompanied by nausea and vomiting. There is no particular quality of a headache that indicates that it is related to a brain tumor. Most headaches are not caused by brain tumors.

  • Weakness. A brain tumor can damage any part of the brain. If the part of the brain involved happens to control strength or movement of an arm or leg, it could produce weakness in that part of the body. Weakness caused by a brain tumor can be very similar to that caused by a stroke.

  • Vision Changes. A brain tumor that damages the nerves that connect to the eyes or the part of the brain that processes visual information (occipital cortex) can lead to vision problems, such as double vision or a reduced field of vision.

  • Personality changes. Tumors in certain areas of the brain can cause personality changes or changes in behavior. Typically these changes can be noticed by patients, but sometimes they are unaware and only their family and friends notice.

  • Hearing loss. Brain tumors that affect the auditory nerves—especially acoustic neuromas—can cause hearing loss in the ear on the involved side of the brain.

>Next page: brain tumor causes, effects, and specialists

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