Brain Cancer Overview
Brain cancer is often a deadly disease where malignant brain cancer cells damage healthy brain tissue. Most brain cancers will eventually form a malignant mass of tissue growing a tumor that interferes with the function of the brain that includes memory, sensation, muscle control and typical body functions. The cancerous tumor cells are classified as malignant tumors, whereas, noncancerous tumor cells are classified as benign.
Malignant cancer cells formed from brain tissue are classified as primary brain tumors that can become metastatic, or metastasize (spread) to other areas of the body. Alternatively, secondary brain tumors are created by other body tissue material that has spread from other organs of the body to the brain including the lung, breasts, prostate, liver, kidneys, or skin.
- Types of Brain Cancer
- Who Gets Brain Cancer?
- Brain Cancer Symptoms
- Diagnosing Brain Cancer
- Brain Cancer Treatments
Types of Brain Cancer
Medical experts have categoried more than 120 different forms of tumors of the central nervous system and brain. These include the malignant (most aggressive) and benign (least aggressive) tumor. Some of these include:
- Acoustic neuroma
- Brain Stem Glioma
- Optic Nerve Glioma
- Metastatic Brain Tumor
- Pituitary Tumor
- Primitive Neuroectodermal Tumor
- Rhabdoid Tumor
Who Gets Brain Cancer?
Statistics maintained by the American Cancer Society and National Cancer Institute revealed that approximately 16,000 individuals die every year from brain cancer and another nearly 24,000 individuals will develop the rare illness annually. Genetic heredity, or inheriting the disease, affects approximately one out of every twenty cases of brain tumors caused by tuberous sclerosis, neurofibromatosis, and others.
Cancer care experts understand that there are numerous risk factors in the development of a brain tumor. While the direct cause of the development of a tumor is often unknown, there are certain factors that can increase the potential risk of developing the life-threatening tumor in the brain. These include:
- Age – While any individual can develop a brain tumor at any age, these seem to be the most common in older adults and young children.
- Gender – For whatever reason, men are at higher risk of developing a brain tumor compared to women. However, the rates of developing meningioma – a rare noncancerous tumor formed in the membranes around the spinal cord and brain – tend to occur more often in women.
- Environmental Exposures – Individuals exposed to toxic chemicals and pesticides, solvents, rubber, oil products, or vinyl chloride have an increased potential risk of developing a life-threatening brain tumor. However, scientists have yet to provide evidence of the correlation between exposure to environmental factors and the development of brain tumors.
- Heredity – The individual’s genetic predisposition (hereditary factors) are suspected in one out of every twenty cases of brain tumors. Individuals with a family history of neurofibromatosis, Li-Fraumeni syndrome, Turcot syndrome, tuberous sclerosis, von Hippel-Lindau disease, and carcinoma syndrome are more likely to develop genetic-associated brain tumors compared to those without genetic histories.
- Biological Exposures – Individuals exposed to allergens, viruses, and infections are at a greater risk of developing brain tumors. Scientists have found a correlation between the development of CNS lymphoma and Epstein-Barr virus infections. In addition, high levels of cytomegalovirus have been identified in brain tumors. Alternately, some research has revealed that individuals with a history of skin conditions or allergies have a reduced potential risk of developing glioma – a common tumor affecting the spinal cord or brain.
- Ethnicity – Caucasians (white individuals) in America have a higher risk of developing glioma brain tumors compared to other ethnic groups. Black Americans are more likely to develop meningioma brain tumors compared to other races. Northern Europeans are more than double at risk of developing brain tumors compared to individuals living in Japan.
- Seizures and Head Injuries – Scientists have found a correlation between the development of meningioma brain tumors and head trauma. However, there is no correlation discovered yet between glioma brain tumors and head trauma. Alternatively, scientists have long associated brain tumors and a history of seizures, because a tumor in the brain can easily cause a seizure to occur.
- Nerve Agent Exposure – Many Gulf War veterans returning from overseas have developed brain tumors after being exposed to nerve agents.
- Ionizing Radiation – Any patient previously undergoing head or brain treatment using ionizing radiation, like x-rays, tend to be at a higher risk for developing a brain tumor.
- Electromagnetic Field Exposure – The World Health Organization (WHO) now recommends that individuals limit their mobile phone use and encourages adults and children to use hands-free headsets whenever using mobile technology. This is because there are conflicting studies on how exposure to electromagnetic fields could increase the potential risk of the development of a brain tumor later in life.
- Compromised Immune System – Some individuals whose immune systems are compromised by health conditions, medications or treatments have an increased potential risk of developing brain lymphomas.
Common Brain Cancer Symptoms
Detecting a brain tumor will require a comprehensive medical diagnosis by a competent physician. However, the most common brain cancer symptoms involve:
- Severe or persistent headaches
- Fatigue, dizziness, vertigo, and balance disorders
- Vomiting or nausea affecting the gastrointestinal system
- Muscular problems in including coordination issues, muscle weakness, arm/leg weakness, and a weakening of the left or right side of the body
- Sensory problems with diminished sensation of touch or the feeling of pins and needles
- Speech problems including impaired voice or difficulty in talking
- Cognitive problems involving mental confusion, difficulty in speaking and being understood
- Blurry vision, personality changes
Brain tumors can cause sudden involuntary muscle movements and significant changes in the patient’s memory or personality. However, there are individuals who develop life-threatening brain tumors without displaying any symptoms at all.
Diagnosing Brain Cancer
It usually requires a multitude of tests to diagnose or identify a brain tumor. Once the tumor is detected, the doctor may perform a biopsy procedure to take a small sampling of the tumor or perform surgery to remove the entire cancerous tumor from the brain. Usually, the doctor will perform some type of imaging test to show what is going on inside the body through multiple pictures captured by magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) or computerized tomography (CT) scans. The diagnostic test can provide visual imagery of the kind of tumor the doctor suspects has developed.
As part of the comprehensive diagnostic procedure, the doctor will complete a full medical history that includes the patient’s age, symptoms, signs, and current medical condition. Additionally, the doctor may look for earlier medical test results to see if any problems were present at an earlier time.
The testing might also include a cerebral angiogram (cerebral arteriogram) which is usually multiple x-rays of the patient’s head that reveal brain arteries. These images are captured after the patient has been given a contrast medium injection to help identify the arteries in the testing imaging.
Brain Cancer Treatment
Doctors usually have multiple options to treat brain tumors including chemotherapy, where a chemical medication is injected through an IV (intravenous) drip over multiple treatments. Surgery, especially craniotomy, procedures are available with the surgeon will remove a portion of the skull bone to have access to the brain cavity. The doctor might also use tomotherapy (high dose radiation) to treat the affected area or radiation therapy that uses lethal levels of high-energy x-rays to destroy abnormal cells.