Brain tumors occur when cells grow out of control and form a solid mass. Because your brain has many types of cells, it can get many kinds of tumors. Some are cancer, and others aren’t. Some grow quickly, others slowly. But because your brain is your body’s control center, you have to take all symptoms seriously.
Brain Tumors: Constricted Real Estate Space
The skull is hard, the brain is soft, and there’s really no room in the head for anything else. As a tumor grows, it presses on the brain because it has nowhere else to go. That can affect how you think, see, act, and feel. So with brain tumors, whether it’s cancer or not, what matters is where it’s located, how quickly and easily it can grow or spread, and if the doctor can take it out.
Brain Tumors: Secondary Brain Cancer
Most people who have brain cancer (about 100,000 each year) have this kind, which means cancer, starting in some other part of your body, then has spread to your brain. About half of all brain cancers start as lung cancer. Other cancers that can spread to your brain include:
- Breast cancer
- Colon cancer
- Kidney cancer
- Melanoma (skin cancer)
Brain Tumors: Primary Tumors
In adults, the most common tumors that start in the brain are meningiomas and gliomas.
Meningiomas make up more than 35% of all primary brain tumors. They don’t grow from brain tissue itself, but from cells in the brain’s covering. A meningioma is a tumor that forms on membranes that cover the brain and spinal cord just inside the skull. Specifically, the tumor forms on the three layers of membranes that are called meninges. These tumors are often slow-growing. As many as 90% are benign (not cancerous).
The most common cancerous brain tumors, about 20% are glioblastomas. This type of tumor grows and spreads rapidly, often creating pressure. Symptoms include headache, nausea, drowsiness, blurred vision, personality changes, and seizures.
They spread quickly and are often fatal.
Brain Tumors: Other Types
The different kinds of primary brain tumors are all named after where in your brain they start. Besides gliomas, they include adenomas (in your pituitary gland), chordomas (skull and spine), medulloblastomas (cerebellum), and sarcomas (brain tissue).
Brain Tumors: Different Levels
Doctors label brain tumors with a grade from 1 to 4. Low-grade tumors (grade 1) aren’t cancer. They grow slowly and don’t usually spread. They can usually be cured if your doctor can take them out with surgery. At the other end, high-grade tumors (grade 4) are cancer. They grow fast, spread quickly, and typically can’t be cured. Grades 2 and 3 fall in between. Treatments are radiation, chemotherapy, and surgery.
Brain Tumors: Symptoms To Be Aware Of
These depend on the kind of tumor you have and where it is, but you may:
- Act in ways you normally wouldn’t
- Feel sleepy throughout the day
- Find it hard to express yourself, like you can’t find the right words or feel confused
- Get bad headaches often, especially in the morning
- Have problems seeing, like blurred or doubled vision
- Lose your balance easily or have problems walking
- Have seizures
Testing begins with a neurological exam. This checks your nervous system, such as your vision, balance, and reflexes, to get an idea of where the tumor might be. A scan gives a more detailed look at the tumor. This might be an MRI (magnetic resonance imaging), CT (computerized tomography), or PET (positron emission tomography) scan. And a biopsy is also taken.
Brain Tumors: Chemotherapy
This uses powerful drugs to kill cancer cells, or at least slow them down. It gets delivered in several ways, including pills, injections or intravenous needle-drip. Another method is a wafer filled with chemo drugs that’s placed in your brain after surgery. The wafer slowly dissolves and directs the drugs right at the tumor, killing any cancer cells left behind.
Brain Tumors: Radiation Therapy
Radiation uses beams of high energy from X-rays or other sources to kill the tumor. Sometimes, it’s used along with chemotherapy to help kill more cancer cells or to protect your brain. Newer types of radiation, like proton therapy and focused radiation, target the tumor very closely so they don’t damage adjacent areas of your brain.
Brain Tumors: Targeted Therapy
Cancer cells work differently than normal cells. Doctors can sometimes take advantage of these differences with targeted therapy, which uses drugs to block cancer cells from doing what they need to survive. It kills the cancer but leaves your normal cells alone. For example, a targeted drug can keep a tumor from making the blood vessels that help it grow.
Brain Tumors: Post Treatment Therapy
Post treatment therapy is important because your brain affects pretty much everything you do, and you may need help with everyday tasks:
- Occupational therapy to get back to normal daily and work activities
- Physical therapy to regain your full movement and strength
- Speech therapy to help with swallowing and speaking