Brain Cancer

Brain cancer begins with a mass of abnormal cell growth inside of the brain. There are many different types of brain tumors, some being malignant or cancerous, and others being benign or noncancerous. Many people end up with brain cancer after their original type of cancer metastasized into the brain. These types of metastasized tumors are called secondary cancers of the brain. The growth rate of brain tumors can be very different based on the type of cancer and the location in the body if it affects the nervous system. There are treatment plans and protocols available for brain cancer, but this cancer remains one of the hardest types to treat.

There is no set explanation as to why brain cancer develops, or any other cancer for that matter. When damaged DNA cells mutate and reproduce, this can set up the body for abnormal cell growth in any area. In the case of brain cancer, there are two main types of brain tumors listed as primary and secondary.

Primary brain tumors originate inside the brain or in the tissues surrounding it like the membranes, cranial nerves, pineal or pituitary glands. Primary brain tumors are much less common in adults than secondary tumors, as many develop this cancer from their original cancer spreading. There are many different types of primary tumors which are named for the areas they infect. Some of these are:

  • Gliomas. These tumors begin in the brain or spinal cord and include astrocytoma, ependymomas, glioblastomas, oligoastrocytomas and oligodendrogliomas.
  • Meningiomas. A meningioma is a tumor that arises from the membranes that surround your brain and spinal cord. Most meningiomas are noncancerous.
  • Acoustic neuromas. 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.
  • Germ cell tumors. Germ cell tumors may develop during childhood where the testicles or ovaries will form. But sometimes germ cell tumors affect 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.

Secondary brain tumors are more common in adults. The most common types of secondary brain cancers are:

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

What are the risk factors for increasing your chances of developing brain cancer?

In most all cases of primary brain cancer, the risk factors are not clear. Many doctors and specialists alike have identified a few factors that could play a role in the development of this cancer. These include:

  • Exposure to radiation. People who have been exposed to a type of radiation called ionizing radiation have an increased risk of brain tumor. Examples of ionizing radiation include radiation therapy used to treat cancer and radiation exposure caused by atomic bombs.
  • Family history of brain tumors. A small portion of brain tumors occurs in people with a family history of brain tumors or a family history of genetic syndromes that increase the risk of brain tumors.

What are the symptoms of brain cancer that I should watch out for?

The signs and symptoms can vary greatly between cases and types of cancer the patients have. Growth rate, stage of cancer and location also play a role in which symptoms are visible and which remain hidden. General symptoms may include:

  • New onset or change in pattern of headaches
  • Headaches that gradually become more frequent and more severe
  • Unexplained nausea or vomiting
  • Vision problems like blurred vision, double vision or loss of peripheral vision
  • Gradual loss of sensation or movement in an arm or a leg
  • Difficulty with balance
  • Speech difficulties
  • Confusion in everyday matters
  • Personality or behavior changes
  • Seizures, especially in someone who doesn’t have a history of seizures
  • Hearing problems
  • Sudden inability to control bladder or bowel

How is brain cancer diagnosed?

If you or your doctors suspect you have brain cancer, they may recommend a series of tests and procedures to determine what you are dealing with. These tests may include:

  • A neurological exam. A neurological exam may include, among other things, checking your vision, hearing, balance, coordination, strength and reflexes. Difficulty in one or more areas may provide clues about the part of your brain that could be affected by a brain tumor.
  • Imaging tests. Magnetic resonance imaging is commonly used to help diagnose brain tumors. In some cases, a dye may be injected through a vein in your arm during your MRI study.
  • A number of specialized MRI scan components, including functional MRI, perfusion MRI and magnetic resonance spectroscopy, may help your doctor evaluate the tumor and plan treatment.
  • Sometimes other imaging tests are recommended, including computerized tomography. Positron emission tomography may be used for brain imaging but is generally not as useful for creating images of brain cancer as it is for other types of cancer.
  • Tests to find cancer in other parts of your body. If it is suspected that your brain tumor may be a result of cancer that has spread from another area of your body, your doctor may recommend tests and procedures to determine where cancer originated. One example might be a CT or PET scan to look for signs of lung cancer.
  • Collecting and testing a sample of abnormal tissue during a biopsy. A biopsy can be performed as part of an operation to remove the brain tumor, or a biopsy can be performed using a needle.
  • A stereotactic needle biopsy may be done for brain tumors in hard to reach areas or very sensitive areas within your brain that might be damaged by a more extensive operation. Your neurosurgeon drills a small hole into your skull. A thin needle is then inserted through the hole. Tissue is removed using the needle, which is frequently guided by CT or MRI scanning.
  • The biopsy sample is then viewed under a microscope to determine if it is cancerous or benign. Sophisticated laboratory tests can give your doctor clues about your prognosis and your treatment options.

What is the treatment plan for brain cancer?

Your treatment plan will depend on the size, type and location of the brain tumor as well as your overall health when treatment begins. The most common types of treatment are:

  • Surgery. If your tumor is located in an area of the brain where surgery could remove it, your surgeon will work with you to remove as much of the tumor as possible. In cases where the tumor is smaller in size, it may be easy to remove and detach it from your brain tissue. In other cases, your tumor may be too connected to surrounding tissue making it too hard to remove with surgery. In these cases, removing as much of the tumor as safely possible is done, normally then compounding treatments together. Surgery carries many of its own risks which your medical care team will discuss with you at the time of planning. There have been many advancements in brain surgery over the past decade, some of which now include awake brain surgery.
  • Radiation therapy. This form of therapy uses high-energy beams like X-rays or protons to kill the tumor cells. This therapy is done using a machine on the outside of your body, but in some cases the radiation can be placed inside of your body as close to the brain tumor as possible, which is called brachytherapy. Radiation can be given to a whole area, like the brain, or used in specific target location to certain areas where the tumor may be. Side effects from radiation therapy depend on the dose and type of radiation given. Comm side effects are headaches, memory loss, scalp irritation and fatigue.
  • Radiosurgery. This therapy is not considered traditional, as this uses multiple beams of radiation to give a highly focused form of treatment to kill the cells within the tumor. In this treatment, each beam of radiation is not very powerful, but together at the focal point where all of the beams meet, is a very powerful stream of energy. There are different ways to administer this treatment, with the most common being a linear accelerator or Gamma knife. This therapy is usually done in one treatment, with the patient able to go home after it is over.
  • Chemotherapy. By using heavy drugs and medication to kill the tumor cells, chemotherapy can be taken orally or injected into a vein. This drug is most often used to treatment brain cancer, and many other types of cancer in the body. The type of chemotherapy you end up with will depend on the type of cancer you have. The side effects from chemotherapy can be very bothersome. Nausea, vomiting and hair loss are all reported by those taking chemo to varying degrees. During this treatment, continued testing on your tumor will occur to see if the medications are doing their job in shrinking and killing off the cancer cells.

Will I need any specialized rehabilitation services after my treatment for brain cancer?

It is a definite possibility, but different for each case. Because brain cancer can affect the areas in your brain that control your motor skills, vision, speech and thinking, it may be a necessity and a necessary part of your recovery journey. Depending on how this cancer affects you and how your treatment plan goes, you may need one or more of the following therapies:

  • Physical therapy is done to help you regain lost motor skills or muscle strength. Rebuilding your muscle strength will help your body to be strong and heal more quickly.
  • Occupational therapy is done to help you get back to your normal daily activities, including work, after a brain tumor or other illness. This therapy ensures you can get through the day-to-day living and aspects of life.
  • Speech therapy helps you by pairing you with specialists in speech difficulties to help if you have difficulty speaking. This therapy helps you relearn how to correctly speak and enunciate sounds and letters.
  • Tutoring for school-age children is helpful to help kids for coping with changes in their memory and thinking after a brain tumor and treatment.

If you suspect you have brain cancer or are dealing with moving through the treatment journey, reach out to your doctor or local support groups to meet up with other people in your area fighting the same battle that you are. When dealing with any form of cancer, early detection and diagnosis is key to winning the battle! Empower yourself with education and knowledge to help you on this long journey!

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