CancerDiseases & Conditions

What Is a Brain Tumor?

The brain controls our thoughts, movements, emotions, and everything we do. Even when we sleep, the brain works hard to store memories and perform other tasks.

However, as with all organs in our body, sometimes the brain becomes susceptible to various problems and conditions. A brain tumor is one of them, and there’s a lot we need to learn about brain tumors.

In this post we’ll give you all the answers you need on what is a brain tumor.

What Is a Brain Tumor?

A brain tumor is a mass or growth of abnormal cells in the brain. The skull is rigid, and since it encloses the brain, any growth can cause serious problems. Not all brain tumors are equal. We’re going to discuss the types below, but we can categorize them to benign or noncancerous and malignant or cancerous tumors.

The speed at which the brain tumor develops and grows varies greatly from one patient to another. The location of the brain tumor and its growth rate determine how the condition will affect the function of the nervous system.

Types of Brain Tumors

A brain tumor is not a single disease, but over a hundred of different conditions. Besides their division into benign and malignant, tumors are also categorized into primary or secondary types.

Primary tumors originate in the brain and develop from brain cells, nerve cells, glands, and meninges (the membranes that surround the brain). The most common primary brain tumors in adults are gliomas and meningiomas. Glioma is a type of tumor that starts in the glial cells i.e., gluey supportive cells surrounding nerve cells and helping them function. A meningioma is a type of primary brain tumor that develops on membranes that cover the brain and spinal cord inside the skull.

Secondary brain tumors are the tumors that start elsewhere in the body and spread or metastasize to the brain. These include lung cancer, kidney cancer, breast cancer, and skin cancer.

How Common Are Brain Tumors?

A brain tumor is common, but just how common it is? 

Numbers show that over 700,000 Americans are living with a brain tumor today. This year, about 80,000 people will be diagnosed with a primary brain tumor. Of these, 23,890 cases account for primary malignant tumors of the brain and spinal cord. 

There are over 120 types of primary brain and central nervous system (CNS) tumors. One-third of brain and CNS tumors, i.e., 32 percent of them, are malignant.

The average age at diagnosis of brain tumor is 60, and brain and CNS tumors are the tenth leading cause of death for men and women in the U.S. 

Causes of Brain Tumor

Primary brain tumors start when healthy cells develop mutations in their DNA. New abnormal cells start multiplying rapidly and continue to live even when normal cells would die. Later, the abnormal cells accumulate in a mass and form a tumor.

The exact reason why mutations in healthy cells develop is unknown. Potential causes are genetic and environmental in nature.

When it comes to secondary brain tumors, which are more common than primary tumors, the cause is the condition that caused the tumor to spread or metastasize to the brain.

Who’s At Risk?

Although everyone can develop a brain tumor, some people are at a higher risk than others. The most common risk factors include:

  • Family history of brain tumor
  • Age 
  • Exposure to radiation 
  • Race (while brain tumors are more common in Caucasians, meningiomas are more likely to affect African Americans)
  • No history of chickenpox 

Symptoms of Brain Tumor

Signs and symptoms of a brain tumor depend on its size, location, and growth rate. Some of the most common symptoms include:

  • Balance problems
  • Change in mental functioning
  • Changes in behavior and personality
  • Changes in the pattern of headaches
  • Clumsiness 
  • Confusion regarding everyday matters
  • Dizziness 
  • A gradual loss of sensation or movement in arm or leg
  • Headaches are gradually becoming more frequent and more severe.
  • Hearing problems
  • Memory loss
  • Seizures, particularly in people without a history of seizures
  • Speech difficulties
  • Vision problems
  • Vomiting

Some people may experience difficulty reading and writing, uncontrollable movements, hand tremors, numbness or tingling in one side of the body, and many other symptoms.

How’s a Brain Tumor Diagnosed

If the doctor suspects a patient has a brain tumor, they may order several tests to diagnose it and rule out other conditions with similar symptoms. These tests include:

  • Biopsy – collecting and testing a sample of abnormal tissue
  • Imaging tests – help diagnose brain tumors, including MRI, CT, and PET scan
  • Neurological exam – checking vision, balance, hearing, strength, coordination, and reflexes; could provide clues regarding the location of the brain tumor
  • Tests to find tumors in other parts of the body – for example, CT or PET scan to look for signs of lung cancer; the doctor may order other tests to find tumors elsewhere in the body if they suspect a brain tumor is secondary

How Is a Brain Tumor Treated?

Treatment of a brain tumor depends on its type, size, and location. The doctor discusses treatment options with the patient. The most common brain tumor treatments include:

  • Surgery – This is considered most likely to be curative for a brain tumor and is recommended in cases when the tumor is located in a place where the surgeon can reach it. Surgery may not be possible if the tumor is difficult to reach or has many lesions. The surgical team may attempt to remove as much as possible to decrease the severity of symptoms, but the patient usually undergoes chemotherapy and radiation therapy too.
  • Radiation therapy – Directed to the tumor itself, radiation therapy uses high-energy beams like X-rays or protons to kill tumor cells.
  • Chemotherapy – It uses drugs to kill tumor cells. Drugs are taken orally or intravenously.
  • Symptomatic treatment – The doctor may prescribe different medications to help manage symptoms of brain tumors, e.g., anticonvulsants for seizures and pain medications to alleviate pain

Brain tumors are common and can be benign or malignant and primary or secondary. Secondary tumors are more common than primary. Treatment options vary and depend on the size and location of the tumor. Based on the severity of symptoms and other factors, the doctor recommends the best treatment route for the patient.

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