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You are here: Home » eGM Resources » Health Information & Resources Portal|Home » Brain Cancer

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Brain Cancer

What is Cancer?

Cancer begins in cells, the building blocks that make up tissues. Tissues make up the organs of the body. Normally, cells grow and divide to form new cells as the body needs them. When cells grow old, they die, and new cells take their place. Sometimes this orderly process goes wrong. New cells form when the body does not need them, and old cells do not die when they should. These extra cells can form a mass of tissue called a growth or tumor.

Benign and Malignant Brain Tumors

Benign Brain Tumors

Benign brain tumors do not contain cancer cells:

  • Usually, benign tumors can be removed, and they seldom grow back.
  • The border or edge of a benign brain tumor can be clearly seen. Cells from benign tumors do not invade tissues around them or spread to other parts of the body. However, benign tumors can press on sensitive areas of the brain and cause serious health problems.
  • Unlike benign tumors in most other parts of the body, benign brain tumors are sometimes life threatening.
  • Very rarely, a benign brain tumor may become malignant.

Malignant Brain Tumors

Malignant brain tumors contain cancer cells:

  • Malignant brain tumors are generally more serious and often are life threatening.
  • They are likely to grow rapidly and crowd or invade the surrounding healthy brain tissue.
  • Very rarely, cancer cells may break away from a malignant brain tumor and spread to other parts of the brain, to the spinal cord, or even to other parts of the body. The spread of cancer is called metastasis.
  • Sometimes, a malignant tumor does not extend into healthy tissue. The tumor may be contained within a layer of tissue. Or the bones of the skull or another structure in the head may confine it. This kind of tumor is called encapsulated.
brain tumor

In the brain scan at the left, no sign of a tumor is visible. The second scan (right ) was taken just three months later and shows a large area of brain cancer (in blue ). The patient died two months after the second scan was made. Image courtesy of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and Scientific American, March 1995.

Primary vs. Secondary Brain Tumors

Primary Brain Tumors

Tumors that begin in brain tissue are known as primary tumors of the brain. Primary brain tumors are named according to the type of cells or the part of the brain in which they begin. The most common primary brain tumors are gliomas. They begin in glial cells.

Secondary Brain Tumors

When cancer spreads from its original place to another part of the body, the new tumor has the same kind of abnormal cells and the same name as the primary tumor. Cancer that spreads to the brain from another part of the body is different from a primary brain tumor. When cancer cells spread to the brain from another organ (such as the lung or breast), doctors may call the tumor in the brain a secondary tumor or metastatic tumor. Secondary tumors in the brain are far more common than primary brain tumors.

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Symptoms

The symptoms of brain tumors depend on tumor size, type, and location. Symptoms may be caused when a tumor presses on a nerve or damages a certain area of the brain. They also may be caused when the brain swells or fluid builds up within the skull. These are the most common symptoms of brain tumors:

  • Headaches (usually worse in the morning)
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Changes in speech, vision, or hearing
  • Problems balancing or walking
  • Changes in mood, personality, or ability to concentrate
  • Problems with memory
  • Muscle jerking or twitching (seizures or convulsions)
  • Numbness or tingling in the arms or legs

These symptoms are not sure signs of a brain tumor. Other conditions also could cause these problems. Anyone with these symptoms should see a doctor as soon as possible. Only a doctor can diagnose and treat the problem.

Treatment

brain scanMany people with brain tumors want to take an active part in making decisions about their medical care. They want to learn all they can about their disease and their treatment choices. However, shock and stress after a diagnosis of a brain tumor can make it hard to think of everything to ask the doctor. It often helps to make a list of questions before an appointment. To help remember what the doctor says, patients may take notes or ask whether they may use a tape recorder. Some also want to have a family member or friend with them when they talk to the doctor – to take part in the discussion, to take notes, or just to listen.

The doctor may refer the patient to a specialist, or the patient may ask for a referral. Specialists who treat brain tumors include neurosurgeons, neurooncologists, medical oncologists, and radiation oncologists. The patient may be referred to other health care professionals who work together as a team. The medical team may include a nurse, dietitian, mental health counselor, social worker, physical therapist, occupational therapist, and speech therapist. Children may need tutors to help with schoolwork.

Source: National Cancer Institute


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