Brain Tumors: Know the Symptoms and What the Treatments Are
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What is a brain tumor?
The initial diagnosis of a brain tumor can be scary and overwhelming. There are many different types of tumors, and the prognosis is based mainly on the specific type. It is important to stay positive and organized during this initial period of uncertainty. —Dr. Brian Walcott
A brain tumor is an abnormal growth of cells in the brain. They develop in the brain tissue itself or the covering of the brain. They can also travel to the brain from other parts of the body in a process known as metastasis. Brain tumors can occur in adults and children.
There are many types of brain tumors, and many are benign (not cancer). If it is categorized as cancerous (malignant), it means it can grow quickly and is more life-threatening. Both benign and malignant brain tumors can grow and put pressure on surrounding areas of the brain. That causes symptoms and impacts the way you function.
You may have headaches, a seizure, weakness in a part of your body or other issues depending on what part of the brain the tumor is affected. See a doctor as soon as possible. They can determine if you need to get testing for a brain tumor and should see a cancer specialist (oncologist). If you do, they will determine the type of brain tumor you have and the best treatment option for you.
Most common symptoms
Brain tumors can cause a variety of symptoms depending on where they are located in the brain. Some people get frequent headaches. Some have seizures if the tumor irritates the surface of the brain.
Some people have specific symptoms like arm weakness or difficulty speaking. Or hearing loss or a ringing in their ears. Others may have blurred vision. If the tumor occurs on the pituitary gland, a gland in the brain that directs hormones, it can cause breast discharge or abnormal periods in women. Because symptoms can be so wide-ranging, it’s important to check in with your doctor if you’re experiencing any unusual symptoms. A headache that won’t go away can be a symptom of a brain tumor, but it may be a symptom of other issues. If you experience unusual symptoms that do not go away, call your doctor.
If you start getting a headache that does not subside with rest and over-the-counter pain relievers, see or talk to a doctor.
Go to the emergency room If you have weakness in an arm or leg, a seizure, persistent drowsiness, sudden loss of vision, severe persistent nausea/vomiting.
Ask your doctor about what new treatment options are available. Or if you qualify to participate in a clinical trial. Participating in a clinical trial gives you the opportunity to potentially receive a new treatment. It also allows you to help others with a similar condition. —Dr. Walcott
Brain tumor causes
The cause of brain tumors that originate in the brain is not entirely known. Scientists believe that they may occur because of changes to cell DNA (genetic instructions for how the cell functions). These changes may be partly due to environmental factors like pesticides. The DNA changes cause brain cells to grow and multiply unchecked.
Cancers can also travel to the brain from other parts of the body (metastasis). These cancer cells also have genetic changes that allow them to safely travel through the bloodstream and invade the brain, without being detected by the body’s normal defenses.
Brain tumor treatments
Radiosurgery is a kind of radiation that is given in a single, focused dose—it has revolutionized the treatment for many brain tumor types. It is completely non-invasive, meaning that there is no incision and no pain. Your doctor can advise whether radiosurgery is an option for your tumor type. —Dr. Walcott
A brain tumor must first be diagnosed to determine which type and how advanced it is. An oncologist will order an imaging scan like a CT or MRI to determine the appearance and location of the tumor.
If a tumor is a slow-growing type (either benign or cancerous) and is not seriously affecting any function, a doctor may suggest a “watch and wait” treatment plan. That means that you will get a scan every year or so to measure the tumor. Your doctor will only treat the tumor if it begins to grow.
Sometimes, a neurosurgeon may perform a surgical procedure called a biopsy. A biopsy collects a small tissue sample that will be studied to see if the cells forming the tumor are cancerous or not.
Fast-growing tumors are more likely to be cancerous. Your doctor will want to treat the tumor quickly. Treatment includes surgery, radiotherapy (radiation), chemotherapy, or a combination.
The type of treatment depends on where the tumor is in the brain, how large it is, and the risks and benefits of different treatments.
Brain cancer surgery
If surgery is recommended, patients are typically admitted to the hospital for the procedure. An MRI helps figure out the surgery plan. The goals range from confirming a diagnosis (biopsy) to removing the tumor completely.
Your treatment team will include a neurosurgeon and oncologist. Together you will decide on the best combination of therapies and surgeries for treating the tumor. Unfortunately, some aggressive cancers have no cure, but can be treated to improve symptoms and help patients live longer.
Brain tumors in children
Brain tumors are the most common solid tumors in children. Still, they are extremely rare. Treatment depends on what type of tumor it is and how it is affecting your child’s development. You should call your doctor if you notice symptoms like difficulty moving one side of the body or favoring one side of the body, ongoing head pain, or dizziness. A brain tumor could also contribute to developmental delays, like not moving or crawling on their own.
Brain tumor risk factors
Cancerous brain tumors are very uncommon. The chance you will develop a cancerous brain tumor is less than 1%. The most common reason for a brain tumor is when cancer from somewhere else in the body, like breast cancer or lung cancer, travels through the bloodstream and into the brain. There are generally no known risk factors for developing a brain tumor that starts within the brain tissue itself. There are some extremely rare genetic conditions that may be associated with certain types of brain tumors. Some medical treatments, such as scalp-specific radiation treatments, may increase risk of brain tumor.
There are many types of doctors involved in the management of brain tumors. This includes neuro-oncologists, neurosurgeons, and radiation oncologists.
Depending on the type of tumor and where it is in the brain, eye doctors (ophthalmologists), gland specialists (endocrinologists), and other doctors will help manage symptoms and treatment.
In addition, you may work with a physical therapist, occupational therapist, or speech therapist to regain function. In some cases, a successful surgery may affect other parts of your body, such as your sight or speech. Treatment goals and plans will continually be discussed with you and your treatment care team.
Dr. Walcott is a dual fellowship trained neurosurgeon that specializes in neurovascular disease. His clinical interests are in the management of patients with stroke, brain aneurysms, arteriovenous malformations, cavernous malformations, carotid artery disease, moyamoya disease, brain tumors, and spinal cord tumors. He performs both surgery and minimally invasive, endovascular procedures.
Dr. Walcott received his undergraduate degree from Seton Hall University. He then went on to graduate from medical school at Loyola University Chicago, where he was inducted into the Alpha Omega Alpha honor society. He completed a residency in neurological surgery at Harvard Medical School & the Massachusetts General Hospital. Following residency, Dr. Walcott joined the faculty at Harvard Medical School as an attending neurosurgeon at the Massachusetts General Hospital. He then went on to complete a fellowship in neurovascular surgery at the University of California San Francisco, with an emphasis on cerebrovascular bypass and minimally invasive skull base surgery. Additionally, he completed a fellowship in endovascular neurosurgery at the University of Southern California. His research interests are focused on investigating the genetic and molecular basis of vascular malformations, brain edema, and cerebral ischemia. He has authored over 150 peer-reviewed scientific publications and his research been funded by the Brain Aneurysm Foundation, the Congress of Neurological Surgeons, and the National Institutes of Health. Dr. Walcott is a member of the American Association of Neurological Surgeons, the Congress of Neurological Surgeons, and the Society of Neurointerventional Surgery.