A cancer diagnosis can be frightening, but especially so when there’s a tumor in the brain. While some types of brain cancer or cancer in the brain are less aggressive than others, all have the potential to disrupt a person’s thoughts, memories, senses, personality, language abilities, and body control. And brain cancer can be life threatening, particularly if left untreated.
Like any other cancer, brain cancer or cancer in the brain gets its start when cells start dividing abnormally and uncontrollably, forming growths known as tumors. But not all tumors are cancerous. Some are benign, meaning that they are caused by overgrowth of normal cells.
Benign tumors tend to grow slowly and don’t spread, or metastasize, in the same way that malignant tumors do. Still, benign tumors in the brain or spinal cord can pose a threat to health because they can compress and destroy adjacent vital tissue or increase pressure in the skull.
Cancerous tumors in the brain typically don’t spread to distant areas of the body, but they can invade other areas of the brain and the spinal cord.
Actually, about 80% of malignant tumors in the brain don’t originate there. Instead, they originate and metastasize from primary cancers elsewhere in the body.
The cells in these tumors, known as secondary brain tumors resemble cells from the original cancers, not brain cells.
This article focuses on primary brain tumors, cancers that originate in brain tissue, brain cancer or cancer in the brain.
The Primary brain tumors are classified according to the type of brain cells they develop from, the appearance of individual cells under the microscope, their location in the brain, or a combination of these factors.
More than half of adult brain tumors are gliomas, which mean they arise in the tissue in the brain known as glial tissue.
Examples include astrocytomas, which start in brain cells called astrocytes, and glioblastomas, which are particularly aggressive forms of astrocytomas.
In terms of successful treatment, more important than the name of the tumor is its GRADE, the term used to describe a tumor’s aggressiveness or how likely it is to grow.
Grade 1 tumors tend to look more like normal cells and grow slowly and rarely spread, giving patients an excellent chance at long-term survival.
Grade 2 tumors also grow relatively slowly, but they can creep into nearby brain tissue. These tumors can come back if removed, sometimes as a higher-grade tumor.
Grade 3 tumors are much like grade 2, but they grow slightly more quickly and are more likely to recur. Grade 4 tumors are the most dangerous: the cancer cells reproduce rapidly and, if left unchecked, will quickly invade other parts of the brain or spinal cord. Very rarely, grade 4 tumors can spread beyond the nervous system to other parts of the body.
Cause of Brain Cancer
Scientists don’t completely understand why brain cells turn cancerous, but some factors can make the disease more likely. Radiation to the head, given as a form of treatment for brain tumors, can increase the risk of brain cancers.
Exposure to vinyl chloride (an odorless gas used in the manufacturing of plastics), petroleum products, and certain other chemicals have been linked to an increased risk. Research is still in progress to check if certain viruses trigger the disease. The disease rarely strikes more than one member of a family, although rare cases of certain types of brain cancers do run in families.
Contrary to popular belief, there is still no clear evidence at this point that cellular phones, power lines, or aspartame can cause brain cancer.
Brain cancer can arise at any age, but most patients are either younger than 12 or older than 40. Slightly more than one-fourth of all brain tumors are primary. The remaining is secondary (metastatic). It’s not known what causes primary brain tumors. It’s possible that heredity, environmental factors, viruses or other factors play a role in their development.
Some common types of primary tumors which are named after the type of brain cells from which they originate include acoustic neuromas (schwannomas), astrocytomas, medulloblastomas, meningiomas and oligodendrogliomas.
Secondary (metastatic) brain tumors are tumors that result from brain cancer that starts elsewhere in the body and then spreads (metastasizes) to the brain. Cancers of the lung and breast are most likely to spread to the brain. Sometimes, a brain tumor is the first sign of cancer that began elsewhere in the body.
Brain Cancer Symptoms or Signs of Brain Cancer
Brain cancer symptoms or signs of brain cancer depend on its size, location and rate of growth.
A brain tumor either primary or secondary can cause a variety of signs and symptoms because it can directly press on or invade brain tissue. This can damage or destroy areas responsible for sight, movement, balance, speech, hearing, memory or behavior.
Pressure from a brain tumor can also cause surrounding brain tissue to swell (edema), further increasing pressure and symptoms.
Signs and symptoms can include the following:
- Change in pattern of headaches or New onset of Headache
- Headaches that gradually become more frequent and more severe
- Headaches that tend to be worse in the morning and ease during the day,
- Unexplained nausea
- Abnormal eye movements or changes in vision
- Vision problems, such as blurred vision, double vision or loss of peripheral vision
- Gradual loss of sensation or movement in an arm or a leg
- Weakness or loss of feeling in the arms or legs,
- Difficulty with balance, Stumbling or lack of coordination in walking (ataxic gait),
- Speech difficulties or Changes in speech.
- Confusion in everyday matters
- Personality or behavior changes
- Seizures (convulsions) , especially in someone who doesn’t have a history of seizures — as with epilepsy, for example
- Hearing problems
- Hormonal (endocrine) disorders
- Loss of appetite.
- Changes in mood and personality or memory.
- Changes in ability to think and learn.
Brain Cancer Treatment
Brain cancer treatment or brain tumor treatment along with survival odds depends on several factors, including its type, location, size, and grade, and the person’s general health.
Today’s available options include surgery, high-energy X-rays (radiotherapy), and cancer-fighting drugs (chemotherapy).
Initial treatment of a brain cancer or brain tumor may include steroid medications to reduce swelling and inflammation of brain tissue. Anticonvulsant medications may help prevent or control seizures.
If the brain cancer or brain tumor has resulted in a buildup of fluid in the brain (hydrocephalus), the doctor may surgically insert a shunt. A shunt is a long, thin tube that’s placed in the brain and then threaded under the skin to another part of the body, usually the abdomen. The tube allows excess fluid to be removed from the brain. These measures aren’t often needed for benign, primary brain tumors.
This is the mainstay of brain cancer or brain tumor treatment. It involves removing as much of the tumor as possible while trying to minimize damage to healthy tissue. Some tumors can be removed completely, while others can be removed only partially or not all.
The removal of the tumor from the brain is called craniotomy, where in the surgeon makes an opening in the skull and removes as much of the tumor as possible without damaging normal brain tissue.
If a tumor, or a part of it, can’t be removed that way, the surgeon may insert a needle through a small hole in the skull to collect cells from the tumor. This procedure is called a biopsy.
When placed under a microscope, these cells help determine the plan for future treatments. With a clear view of the type and grade of cells that make up the tumor, doctors can customize treatments to shrink or destroy the cancerous growth.
Most patients who can’t be cured with surgery alone will need a combination of radiotherapy and chemotherapy. These treatments may also be used after surgery to help keep tumors from coming back.
In brain cancer radiotherapy, the radiation is delivered either by a machine outside the body (external radiation) or by small radioactive pellets implanted in the tumor (interstitial radiotherapy or brachytherapy).
With external radiation, a patient usually undergoes several sessions a week for several weeks. Patients who receive radioactive pellets often stay in the hospital for a few days while the radiation is strongest.
Some tumors, however, can be destroyed in a single, large dose of radiation coming from many different directions, a treatment called stereotactic radiosurgery. This technique targets the tumor more precisely and attempts to spare damage to normal tissue.
In Brain cancer Chemotherapy drugs can be given singly or in combination. They are usually injected into a vein or taken by mouth (orally), but they may also be given intrathecally i.e. injected into the cerebrospinal fluid that bathes the brain and spinal cord.
Different brain cancer or brain tumors respond differently to chemotherapy. Some are resistant to certain drugs, while others including astrocytomas can respond especially well. Depending on the situation, the side effects from these treatments can range from mild to severe. Brain cancer is a formidable disease, but fortunately, today’s treatments give most patients a fighting chance.
Brain Cancer Prognosis
Brain Cancer prognosis greatly depends on all of the following:
- Type of tumor
- Extent of the disease
- Size and location of the tumor
- Age, overall health, and medical history
- Metastasis, its presence or absence
- Response of the tumor to the therapy
- Tolerance of specific medications, procedures, or therapies
- New developments in treatment
Prompt medical attention and aggressive therapy are important for the best prognosis. As with any cancer, prognosis and long-term survival can vary greatly from individual to individual. Continuous follow-up care is essential for a person diagnosed with a brain cancer or brain tumor. Side effects of radiation and chemotherapy, as well as second malignancies, can occur in survivors of brain cancers or brain tumors.
More research is needed to improve treatment, decrease side effects of the treatment for this disease, and develop a cure. New methods are continually being discovered to improve treatment and to decrease side effects.
Rehabilitation for lost motor skill and muscle strength may be required for an extended amount of time. Speech therapists and physical and occupational therapists may be involved in some form of rehabilitation.
Brain Cancer Prevention
Following brain cancer prevention recommendations is not a guarantee that one will never develop brain cancer, but it is important to be aware of the keys to brain cancer prevention and how to benefit from them. Although researchers have come a long way in discovering methods of brain cancer prevention, there is still a long way to go. Brain cancer prevention methods, as in most cancer prevention methods focus on various aspects of healthy living.