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Brain Cancer: Overview

What is brain cancer?

Cancer is made of changed cells that grow out of control. The changed (abnormal) cells often grow to form a lump or mass called a tumor. Cancer cells can also grow into (invade) nearby areas. And they can spread to other parts of the body. This is called metastasis.

The brain controls the body. It controls the things we need to do, such as talk, walk, and chew our food. It also does the things that need to be done for us, like control our breathing, heartbeat, and digestion. The brain is the center of these things and others, such as how we feel, how we think, how we remember, and how we use our senses. The brain is made up of 3 main parts: cerebrum, cerebellum, and brain stem. When you have a tumor, the brain can’t do its job correctly.

There are 2 types of brain cancer:

  • Primary tumor. This kind of tumor starts in the brain.

  • Secondary (metastatic) tumor. This kind of tumor is from a cancer that starts in another part of the body, then spreads to the brain.

There are 2 types of primary tumors:

  • Benign tumor. This kind of tumor is not cancer. It tends to grow slowly. Most benign brain tumors don’t grow into nearby tissue. Once removed, they usually don’t grow back. Brain tumors can cause serious damage even if they are benign. The damage will be related both to the type of tumor and where it is in the brain.

  • Malignant tumor. This kind of tumor is cancer. It usually grows fast, and grows into nearby tissue. This can make it hard to remove fully.

Primary brain tumors are named by the type of brain tissue where they are growing. There are many types of primary brain tumors. The most common primary brain tumors are gliomas. These begin in the supportive glial tissue of the brain. Glioma is 1 one of many types of brain cancer.

Who is at risk for brain cancer?

A risk factor is anything that may increase your chance of having a disease. The exact cause of someone’s cancer may not be known. But risk factors can make it more likely for a person to have cancer. Some risk factors may not be in your control. But others may be things you can change.

Most brain tumors occur in people without any known risk factors. But some things may increase your risk for brain tumors. They include:

  • Radiation exposure

  • Certain inherited syndromes, including neurofibromatosis and von Hippel-Lindau disease

  • Family history of brain tumors

  • Weak immune system

Talk with your healthcare provider about your risk factors for brain cancer and what you can do about them.

Can brain cancer be prevented?

Researchers don’t yet know how to prevent this type of cancer.

What are the symptoms of brain cancer?

Brain tumor symptoms depend on the size and location of the tumor. They also can vary from person to person. Symptoms are caused by the damage the tumor does to parts of the brain, and increased pressure inside the skull. The most common symptoms of a brain tumor include:

  • Headaches

  • Nausea

  • Weakness or loss of feeling

  • Symptoms can also include:

  • Stumbling or trouble walking

  • Changes in vision or abnormal eye movements

  • Changes in personality, memory, or speech

  • Changes in alertness, from increased sleepiness to coma

  • Uncontrollable convulsions of the body (seizures)

  • Weakness on one side of the body

  • Trouble talking

  • A reduced field of vision

Many of these may be caused by other health problems. But it is important to see your healthcare provider if you have these symptoms. Only a healthcare provider can tell if you have cancer.

How is brain cancer diagnosed?

If your healthcare provider thinks you may have brain cancer, you will need exams and tests to be sure. Your healthcare provider will ask you about your health history, your symptoms, risk factors, and family history of disease. He or she will also give you a physical exam. You may also have one or more tests such as an MRI or CT scan.

After a diagnosis of brain cancer, you may have other tests. These help your healthcare providers learn more about the cancer. They can help determine the stage of the cancer. The stage is how much and how far the cancer has spread (metastasized) in your body. It is one of the most important things to know when deciding how to treat the cancer.

Once your cancer is staged, your healthcare provider will talk with you about what the stage means for your treatment. Be sure to ask your healthcare provider to explain the stage of your cancer to you in a way you can understand.

How is brain cancer treated?

Your treatment choices depend on the type of brain cancer you have, test results, and the stage of the cancer. The goal of treatment may be to cure you, control the cancer or help ease problems caused by the cancer. Talk with your healthcare team about your treatment choices, the goals of treatment, and what the risks and side effects may be.

Types of treatment for cancer are either local or systemic. Local treatments remove, destroy, or control cancer cells in one area. Surgery and radiation are local treatments. Systemic treatment is used to destroy or control cancer cells that may have traveled around your body. When taken by pill or injection, chemotherapy is a systemic treatment. You may have just one treatment or a combination of treatments.

Different types of brain tumor treatments have different goals. The types of treatment include:

  • Surgery

  • Radiation therapy

  • Chemotherapy

  • Targeted therapy

  • Other medicines to help relieve symptoms caused by the tumor or its treatment

Talk with your healthcare providers about your treatment options. Make a list of questions. Think about the benefits and possible side effects of each option. Talk about your concerns with your healthcare provider before making a decision.

What are treatment side effects?

Cancer treatment such as chemotherapy and radiation can damage normal cells. This can cause side effects such as hair loss, mouth sores, and vomiting. Talk with your healthcare provider about side effects you might have and ways to manage them. There may be things you can do and medicines you can take to help prevent or control side effects.

Coping with brain cancer

Many people feel worried, depressed, and stressed when dealing with cancer. Getting treatment for cancer can be hard on your mind and body. Keep talking with your healthcare team about any problems or concerns you have. Work together to ease the effect of cancer and its symptoms on your daily life.

Here are tips:

  • Talk with your family or friends.

  • Ask your healthcare team or social worker for help.

  • Speak with a counselor.

  • Talk with a spiritual advisor, such as a minister or rabbi.

  • Ask your healthcare team about medicines for depression or anxiety.

  • Keep socially active.

  • Join a cancer support group.

Cancer treatment is also hard on the body. To help yourself stay healthier, try to:

  • Eat a healthy diet, with as many protein foods as possible.

  • Drink plenty of water, fruit juices, and other liquids.

  • Keep physically active.

  • Rest as much as needed.

  • Talk with your healthcare team about ways to manage treatment side effects.

  • Take your medicines as directed by your team.

When should I call my healthcare provider?

Your healthcare provider will talk with you about when to call. You may be told to call if you have any of the below:

  • New symptoms or symptoms that get worse

  • Signs of an infection, such as a fever

  • Side effects of treatment that affect your daily function or don't get better with treatment

Ask your healthcare provider what signs to watch for, and when to call. Know how to get help after office hours and on weekends and holidays.

Key points about brain cancer

Next steps

Tips to help you get the most from a visit to your healthcare provider:

  • Know the reason for your visit and what you want to happen.

  • Before your visit, write down questions you want answered.

  • Bring someone with you to help you ask questions and remember what your provider tells you.

  • At the visit, write down the name of a new diagnosis, and any new medicines, treatments, or tests. Also write down any new instructions your provider gives you.

  • Know why a new medicine or treatment is prescribed, and how it will help you. Also know what the side effects are.

  • Ask if your condition can be treated in other ways.

  • Know why a test or procedure is recommended and what the results could mean.

  • Know what to expect if you do not take the medicine or have the test or procedure.

  • If you have a follow-up appointment, write down the date, time, and purpose for that visit.

  • Know how you can contact your provider if you have questions.

Online Medical Reviewer: Luc Jasmine, MD
Online Medical Reviewer: Rick Alteri, MD
Date Last Reviewed: 2/1/2017
© 2019 The StayWell Company, LLC. 800 Township Line Road, Yardley, PA 19067. All rights reserved. This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your healthcare provider's instructions.
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