Brain Tumor: Causes, Symptoms & Treatment

Picture of Brain Tumor

Brain Tumor Overview

A brain tumor is a mass or growth of abnormal cells in your brain or close to your brain.

Many different types of brain tumors exist. Some brain tumors are noncancerous (benign), and some brain tumors are cancerous (malignant). Brain tumors can begin in your brain (primary brain tumors), or cancer can begin in other parts of your body and spread to your brain (secondary, or metastatic, brain tumors).

How quickly a brain tumor grows can vary greatly. The growth rate as well as location of a brain tumor determines how it will affect the function of your nervous system.

Brain tumor treatment options depend on the type of brain tumor you have, as well as its size and location.

Brain Tumor Causes

Brain tumors that begin in the brain

Primary brain tumors originate in the brain itself or in tissues close to it, such as in the brain-covering membranes (meninges), cranial nerves, pituitary gland or pineal gland.

Primary brain tumors begin when normal cells acquire errors (mutations) in their DNA. These mutations allow cells to grow and divide at increased rates and to continue living when healthy cells would die. The result is a mass of abnormal cells, which forms a tumor.

Primary brain tumors are much less common than are secondary brain tumors, in which cancer begins elsewhere and spreads to the brain.

Many different types of primary brain tumors exist. Each gets its name from the type of cells involved. Examples include:

  • Gliomas. These tumors begin in the brain or spinal cord and include astrocytomas, ependymoma, glioblastomas, oligoastrocytomas and oligodendrogliomas.
  • Meningiomas. A meningioma is a tumor that arises from the membranes that surround your brain and spinal cord (meninges). Most meningiomas are noncancerous.
  • Acoustic neuromas (schwannomas). These are benign tumors that develop on the nerves that control balance and hearing leading from your inner ear to your brain.
  • Pituitary adenomas. These are mostly benign tumors that develop in the pituitary gland at the base of the brain. These tumors can affect the pituitary hormones with effects throughout the body.
  • Medulloblastomas. These are the most common cancerous brain tumors in children. A medulloblastoma starts in the lower back part of the brain and tends to spread through the spinal fluid. These tumors are less common in adults, but they do occur.
  • PNETs. Primitive neuroectodermal tumors (PNETs) are rare, cancerous tumors that start in embryonic (fetal) cells in the brain. They can occur anywhere in the brain.
  • Germ cell tumors. Germ cell tumors may develop during childhood where the testicles or ovaries will form. But sometimes germ cell tumors move to other parts of the body, such as the brain.
  • Craniopharyngiomas. These rare, noncancerous tumors start near the brain’s pituitary gland, which secretes hormones that control many body functions. As the craniopharyngioma slowly grows, it can affect the pituitary gland and other structures near the brain.

Cancer that begins elsewhere and spreads to the brain

Secondary (metastatic) brain tumors are tumors that result from cancer that starts elsewhere in your body and then spreads (metastasizes) to your brain.

Secondary brain tumors most often occur in people who have a history of cancer. But in rare cases, a metastatic brain tumor may be the first sign of cancer that began elsewhere in your body.

Secondary brain tumors are far more common than are primary brain tumors.

Any cancer can spread to the brain, but the most common types include:

  • Breast cancer
  • Colon cancer
  • Kidney cancer
  • Lung cancer
  • Melanoma

Brain Tumor Symptoms

Brain tumor symptoms can vary according to tumor type and location. There are times a person may have no symptoms when their brain tumor is discovered

  • Recurrent headaches
  • Issues with vision
  • Seizures
  • Changes in personality
  • Short-term memory loss
  • Poor coordination
  • Difficulty speaking or comprehending

Whatever symptoms you have, discuss them fully with your physician so everyone has the most accurate information.

Diagnosing a brain tumor can be a complicated process and involve a number of specialists, depending on where you live or where you seek medical attention. A brain scan, most often an MRI, is the first step. A biopsy may be necessary, so a pathologist can be brought in to help identify the brain tumor type.

How Are Brain Tumors Treated?

Surgery to remove the tumor is typically the first option once a brain tumor has been diagnosed. However, some tumors can’t be surgically removed because of their location in the brain. In those cases, chemotherapy and radiation therapy are both options for killing and shrinking the tumor. Sometimes, chemotherapy or radiation is also used after surgery to kill any remaining cancer cells. Tumors that are deep in the brain or in areas that are difficult reach may be treated with Gamma Knife therapy, which is a form of highly focused radiation therapy.

Because treatment for cancer also can damage healthy tissue, it’s important to discuss possible side and long-term effects of whatever treatment is being used with your doctor. The doctor can explain the risk and the possibility of losing certain faculties. The doctor can also explain the importance of planning for rehabilitation following treatment. Rehabilitation could involve working with several different therapists, such as:

  • Physical therapist to regain strength and balance
  • Speech therapist to address problems with speaking, expressing thoughts, or swallowing
  • Occupational therapist to help manage daily activities such as using the bathroom, bathing, and dressing

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