Brain cancer is an overgrowth of cells in the brain that form masses called tumors. Cancerous (malignant) brain tumors tend to grow very quickly. They disrupt the way your body works, and this can be life threatening. However, brain cancer is rare. Each year, only about seven in 100,000 people in the United States are diagnosed with malignant brain tumors.
The exact cause of brain cancer is unknown.
Cancer is named based on where in your body it begins. So brain cancer begins in your brain. This is sometimes referred to as primary brain cancer. You can also have cancer in your brain that spread to it after starting somewhere else in your body. This is called metastatic brain cancer. Cancerous tumors in the brain are more often metastatic than primary.
There are also types and grades of brain tumors. The tumor type is based on where it is in your brain, and the grade (I to IV) indicates how quickly a tumor grows, with grade IV being the fastest. There are more than 120 types of brain tumors. However, there is no standard for naming according to type, and there are many subtypes. Different doctors might use different names for the same tumor.
Factors that can increase your risk of brain cancer include:
- exposure to high doses of ionizing radiation
- family history (According to the New York Department of Health, only about five percent of people who get brain cancer have a history of the disease in their family. [NYDH])
- cancer in another part of your body. Cancers that commonly spread, or metastasize, to the brain include lung, breast, kidney, and bladders cancers and melanoma (a type of skin cancer).
Other factors that might be related to developing brain cancer include:
- increased age
- exposure to pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizer
- working with carcinogenic (known to cause cancer) elements, such as lead, plastic, rubber, petroleum, and some textiles
- having an Epstein-Barr virus infection (mononucleosis)
The symptoms of brain cancer depend on the size and location of the tumor. Common brain cancer symptoms include:
- headaches (usually worse in the morning)
- lack of coordination
- lack of balance
- difficulty walking
- memory problems
- difficulty thinking
- speech problems
- vision problems
- personality changes
- abnormal eye movements
- muscle jerking
- muscle twitching
- numbness or tingling in the arms and/or legs
Many of the symptoms of brain cancer are also caused by other, less serious conditions. There is no need to panic if you are experiencing these symptoms, but it is a good idea to visit your doctor to have them investigated, just in case.
If you have symptoms of a brain tumor, your doctor may perform one of the following tests to make a diagnosis:
- neurological examination to determine if a tumor is affecting your brain
- imaging tests, such as computed tomography (CT), magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), and positron emission tomography (PET) scans, to locate the tumor
- lumbar puncture (a procedure that collects a small sample of the fluid that surrounds the brain and spinal cord) to check for cancer cells
- biopsy (a surgical procedure where a small amount of the tumor is removed) for diagnostic testing to determine if the tumor is malignant (cancerous)
There are several treatments for brain cancer. Treatment for primary brain cancer will be different than treatment for metastatic brain tumors. This is because treatment for metastatic cancer will be more focused on the original cancer site.
You may receive one or more treatments depending on the type, size, and location of your brain tumor. Your age and general health are also factors. Treatments include:
Surgery is the most common treatment for brain cancer. Sometimes only part of the tumor can be removed due to its location. In some instances, a tumor is located in a sensitive or inaccessible area of the brain, and surgery to remove it cannot be performed. These kinds of tumors are referred to as inoperable.
Medication and Other Therapies
Chemotherapy and Radiation Therapy
You may be given chemotherapy drugs to destroy cancer cells in your brain and to shrink the tumor. Chemotherapy drugs may be given orally or intravenously. Radiation therapy may be recommended to destroy tumor tissue or cancer cells that cannot be surgically removed. This is done with high-energy waves such as X-rays. Sometimes you undergo chemotherapy and radiation therapy at the same time. Chemotherapy is also done after radiation treatment.
Your doctor may prescribe biologic drugs to boost, direct, or restore the body’s natural defenses against the tumor. For example, the drug bevacizumab works to stop the growth of blood vessels that supply tumors.
In advanced cases of brain cancer that do not respond to treatment, clinical trial therapies and medications may be used. These are treatments that are still in the testing phase.
You may need to go through rehabilitation if the cancer has caused damage in your brain that affects your ability to talk, walk, or perform other normal functions. Rehabilitation includes physical therapy, occupational therapy, and other therapies that can help you relearn activities.
Your doctor may prescribe medications to treat symptoms and side effects caused by the brain tumor and brain cancer treatments.
There is not a lot of scientific research that supports the use of alternative therapies to treat brain cancer; however, they may be a supportive in conjunction with conventional treatments.
- healthy diet and vitamin and mineral supplementation to replace nutrients lost from cancer treatment
- herbs (Talk to your doctor before taking herbs because some herbs can interfere with medications you are taking.)
Your prognosis is dependent on the type, size, and location of your brain tumor. Brain cancer generally has a low survival rate; however, for some types of brain cancer, 80 percent of patients survive for 5 years UMMC, 2011). Some brain cancer treatments can increase your risk of getting other cancerous tumors and may cause cataracts (clouding of the eyes).
There is no way to prevent brain cancer, but you can reduce your risk of getting it if you:
- avoid exposure to pesticides and insecticides
- avoid exposure to carcinogenic chemicals
- do not smoke
- avoid unnecessary exposure to radiation
Written by: Rose Kivi and Marijane Leonard
Medically reviewed by George Krucik, MD