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Medical News Today: Brain Tumor: Types, Symptoms, and Treatment

MNT Knowledge Center

A brain tumor is a mass or growth of abnormal cells within the brain or spinal cord. A brain tumor can be dangerous as it can disrupt the proper function of the brain.

Brain tumors are often referred to as cancerous (malignant) or noncancerous (benign). Tumors can also be primary or secondary.

Types of brain tumor

A CT scan of a brain tumor
A CT scan showing abnormal cell growth on the brain that may indicate a brain tumor.

Brain tumors are often classed as benign or malignant.

  • Benign brain tumors: These brain tumors are not as aggressive as malignant tumors. The mass or growth of abnormal cells does not contain cancer cells. Benign brain tumors grow slowly and tend not spread into other tissue.
  • Malignant brain tumors: This type of brain tumor does contain cancer cells and also tends not to have clear borders. These tumors are considered more dangerous as they grow rapidly and can invade other parts of the brain.

Doctors may also refer to a tumor based on where the tumor cells originated. If the tumor began in the brain, it can be referred to as a primary brain tumor. If it began in another part of the body and spread to the brain, it can be referred to as a secondary, or metastatic, brain tumor.

On May 9 2016, the World Health Organization officially reclassified all of the types of brain tumor. There are now over 120 types of brain tumors.

The American Brain Tumor Association (ABTA) estimate that there will be more than 79,000 new cases of primary brain tumors diagnosed in the United States in 2017. However, they have estimated that around one third of these will be malignant.

ABTA also estimate that there are currently around 700,000 people living with primary brain tumors in the U.S. According to ABTA, an estimated 16,700 people will die from brain and spinal cord tumors in 2017.

Symptoms of brain tumors

Symptoms of brain tumors may vary depending on the type of tumor and its location. The following symptoms may occur slowly and gradually increase, but they may also come quickly in the form of a seizure.

Common symptoms for brain tumors include:

A woman with a bad migraine
Problems with vision, nausea, and persistent headaches may be common symptoms.
  • Persistent headaches
  • Problems with vision
  • Nausea, vomiting, and general drowsiness
  • Seizures
  • Issues with short-term memory
  • Speech problems
  • Coordination issues
  • Personality changes

Despite the symptoms listed above, some people may have experienced no symptoms at all when their brain tumor is discovered.

According to the American Cancer Society (ACS), around half of people with brain tumors get persistent headaches. The ACS also state that around half of people with brain tumors suffer a seizure at some point.

Diagnosis

A doctor may carry out a neurological exam. This is a test of the nervous system, and the doctor will look for problems that are caused by brain tumors. These include:

  • Limb strength
  • Hand strength
  • Reflexes
  • Hearing
  • Vision
  • Skin sensitivity
  • Balance
  • Coordination
  • Memory
  • Mental agility

After these tests, a doctor may then schedule further exams, including:

  • CT scan: A computerized tomography (CT) scan produces a detailed X-ray picture of a patient’s brain
  • MRI scan: Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) uses a strong magnetic field and radio waves to produce a detailed image of the brain
  • EEG: An electroencephalogram uses electrodes attached to the head to record brain activity in search of abnormalities

If a doctor suspects that someone has a brain tumor, the person will probably undergo a biopsy. This is a surgical procedure where a piece of the tumor is removed and sent to a lab for tests. The tests aim to identify whether or not a patient has a brain tumor.

What are the risk factors?

The cause of most brain tumors is not fully understood. According to the ACS, most brain tumors are not actually linked to any known risk factor.

The only known environmental risk factor for brain tumors is exposure to radiation. This tends to be through radiation therapy.

According to the ACS, most people with brain tumors do not have a family history of the disease. However, there are some specific and rare cases where brain tumors have run in the family.

Treatment options

There are a number of factors that doctors consider when deciding on how to treat brain tumors. A person’s medical team will work closely with them to inform them of their options, allowing the person to choose the best treatment.

Factors that will be considered when deciding on how to treat a brain tumor include:

  • Age
  • General health
  • Medical history
  • Type of tumor
  • Location of the tumor
  • Size of the tumor
  • Likelihood of the tumor spreading
  • Tolerance for certain treatments

Here are some of the most common treatment methods for brain tumors:

Surgery

Surgery
Surgery is often the preferred treatment option for brain tumors as it can pose a smaller risk of neurological damage than other options.

Surgery is usually the first method of treatment for brain tumors. The surgeon will aim to remove as much of the tumor as possible. They will aim to do so without damaging any of the brain tissue that surrounds the tumor.

The surgeon may not be able to remove the entire tumor. If this is the case, they may use surgery to remove as much of it as possible before using radiation or chemotherapy to remove the rest. Surgery may also be used to provide a tumor sample, enabling a doctor to find an accurate diagnosis.

Steroids

A doctor may prescribe steroids to a person with a brain tumor. These steroids are designed to reduce the buildup of swelling around a tumor and can also temporarily decrease symptoms. They can also make a person with a brain tumor generally feel better.

Steroids aren’t designed to reduce a tumor’s size, but they can have a toxic effect on certain tumor cells in particular types of brain tumor.

Radiotherapy

Radiotherapy is designed to destroy a brain tumor or prevent its growth. Beams of intense energy are administered to the brain from an external source. It aims to destroy the tumor cells, which causes the tumor to shrink in size. The destroyed tumor cells are then dealt with by the person’s immune system.

The issue with radiotherapy is that radiation cannot distinguish between tumorous cells and healthy cells. If administered, it can damage both sets of cells.

Radiosurgery

Radiosurgery is the common name for stereotactic radio surgery (SRS). SRS is a special form of radiation therapy and is not considered surgery.

SRS allows a doctor to administer a precise dose of radiation in the form of an X-ray beam. They can focus the radiation only on the area of the brain where the tumor is present. This reduces the risk of damage to the healthy part of the person’s brain.

Chemotherapy

The drug is administered to stop the brain tumor from growing and works by preventing the tumor cells from duplicating. Chemotherapy can also cause the tumor cells to artificially begin the process of dying.

Outlook

The survival rate after diagnosis of a brain tumor in the U.S. varies depending on age, type of tumor, and other factors. The 5-year relative survival rate after diagnosis of a primary malignant brain tumor or other central nervous system tumor is 33.8 percent.

After a person has been diagnosed with a brain tumor, it can be a very stressful time. ABTA offer care and support to people with brain tumors. They are contactable toll free at (800) 886-ABTA or via email at ABTAcares@abta.org.

Written by Adam Rowden

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