There’s no way around it: being diagnosed with a brain tumor and experiencing the symptoms associated with a brain tumor is a life-changing experience. In medicine, knowledge is power, and working with the right team of experts to diagnose and treat your brain tumor is essential. As with most tumors, generally speaking, the earlier the diagnosis, the better the prognosis. Therefore, it’s important to know some specifics about brain tumors so that you can take care of yourself, get support and the medical interventions you need.
A brain tumor is an abnormal growth of cells in the brain. Approximately 700,000 Americans currently live with primary brain tumors, with 88,970 new primary brain tumor diagnoses estimated for 2022. Brain tumors are relatively rare, but they are disproportionately fatal and thus receive special attention in the healthcare fields and in medical literature.
There are many different varieties of brain tumors. Some are benign and noncancerous, while others are malignant and cancerous. Primary brain tumors originate in the brain, while secondary (or metastatic) brain tumors start from cancerous growths in other parts of the body and spread to the brain.
Brain tumors can have varied effects on the nervous system, depending on their points of origin, rates of growth, and other factors. These factors also influence recommended courses of treatment. When treating a brain tumor, it’s important to understand your symptoms and to work with a multidisciplinary team, typically radiation oncology, neurology, neurosurgery, and primary care physicians.
Symptoms of brain tumors
Common symptoms related to brain tumors can present themselves at different times and in different ways depending on the type of brain tumor, its location, its rate of growth, the patient’s overall health and lifestyle, and other factors.
Some common symptoms of brain tumors include:
- Headaches, particularly if they are increasing in frequency and severity
- New issues with vision: blurry vision, double vision, etc.
- Dizziness, nausea, vomiting, or vertigo without a known explanation
- Lessening sensation in an arm or leg, or decreasing ability to move your extremities
- Confusion, fatigue, and a decrease in normal cognitive function or environmental awareness
- Loss of ability to communicate, answer simple questions, or follow normal instructions
- Seizures with no other explanation
- Hearing loss
If you are experiencing one or more of these common symptoms of brain tumors, or you have other reasons to suspect you may be experiencing a brain tumor, you should consult with a qualified medical professional as soon as possible. A brain MRI is typically ordered before a diagnosis can be made. Because early detection and diagnosis are so important, there is no reason to put off a discussion of your symptoms.
Types of brain tumors
There are many different types of brain tumors, but they all fall into two pairs of broad categories: primary and secondary, and cancerous and noncancerous.
Primary brain tumors originate within the brain or the meninges (membranes that surround the brain), the pineal gland, the pituitary gland, or the cranial nerves. When healthy cells in these areas mutate, or go through changes in the structure of their DNA, the cells may grow and split too rapidly for the body to manage, and a brain tumor may be the result.
There are over 100 distinct types of primary brain tumors, with some of the most common being:
- Gliomas, which originate in the brain or the spinal cord. These may include astrocytomas, glioblastomas, oligoastrocytomas, and oligodendrogliomas, with glioblastomas being the most common form of malignant brain tumors
- Medulloblastomas, which start in the lower area of the brain and are most common in children
- Meningiomas, which originate in the membranes surrounding the brain or the spinal cord and are the most common form of primary brain tumors
- Pituitary adenomas, Craniopharyngiomas, which develop in the pituitary gland
- Schwannomas, which originate in the area between the brain and the inner ear and are usually benign but can affect hearing, balance, and motor function
Gliomas are classified by the World Health Organization under grades I-IV, with grade I being the least severe and grade IV being the most severe.
Secondary brain tumors are more common than primary brain tumors and originate in other parts of the body. Secondary brain tumors are also known as metastatic tumors, as they spread from elsewhere in the body and metastasize in the brain. Cancer of the breast, colon, kidneys, lungs, or other parts of the body can result in a secondary brain tumor.
Risk factors for brain tumors are complex and not fully understood but may include exposure to radiation or familial history of brain cancer.
Selecting your multidisciplinary healthcare team
Being diagnosed with a brain tumor is a frightening and emotionally challenging experience, but the good news is you don’t have to go through it alone. To reiterate, getting your diagnosis as early as possible is extremely important as it increases the odds of survival and recovery as well as the range of treatment options available. You should also have support from your family and loved ones, as well as a qualified multidisciplinary team.
The advantage of working with a multidisciplinary neurosurgery team, versus a single specialist, is that this range of clinical expertise can open you up to more treatment options. As molecular science becomes both more expansive and more specific, the way brain tumors are treated is changing. Many drugs are approved by the FDA for the treatment of primary and secondary brain tumors. Surgery and radiation are common treatments. Innovative new tools such as Cyberknife and Truebeam are creating new possibilities for the less invasive and painful treatment of brain tumors. You should work closely with your multidisciplinary team to make sure you understand all your available options.
What are Cyberknife and Truebeam?
Cyberknife and Truebeam are among a new class of exciting and innovative tools for the non-surgical treatment of brain tumors.
These robotic machines are used to perform stereotactic radiosurgery (SRS), which allows your neurosurgeon to zoom in on cancerous cells in the brain with greater accuracy than ever before. While older forms of radiation therapy affected larger areas surrounding the brain, SRS treatments tend to be easier on patients, take less time overall, and more accurately target tumor cells, effectively treating the brain tumor.
Because it is noninvasive, SRS is less risky, less painful, and less damaging than traditional radiation treatments. They don’t require anesthesia, and patients can usually recover and resume their normal lives more quickly and easily.
The effective use of SRS requires the interconnected knowledge and skills of a full multidisciplinary team, including neurology, oncology, radiation specialization, and the ability to empathize, educate, and effectively guide patients through the process of treatment. Currently, both Cyberknife and Truebeam treatments are performed locally in our area.
Other treatment options for brain tumors
While stereotactic radiosurgery is an appropriate choice for more and more patients with brain tumors, it may not be the best choice for all patients.
Other treatment options include:
- Brain surgery, which can work in cases where the tumor is easily accessible and can be surgically separated without damaging other areas of the brain
- Chemotherapy, which uses drugs (in intravenous or pill form) to kill cancerous brain tumor cells
- Targeted drug treatments, which block certain abnormalities in tumors and are currently under investigation in clinical trials
Before your appointment: what you should know
If a medical professional suspects you may have a brain tumor, they will attempt to diagnose you through a number of procedures or tests.
These may include:
- A full neurological exam
- Lab work and/or possible biopsy (taking a tissue sample)
The results of the diagnosis, as well as other factors in a patient’s life, will help determine the appropriate course of treatment. In order to make the most of your options, it is important that you share any information with your clinician that may be relevant. You should also have support from your family and others in your life and practice self-care to prepare yourself for treatment, which can be challenging both physically and psychologically.
Understanding your condition and your options for treatment starts with asking the right questions to help you and your doctor gather the information that will be most useful.
Questions to ask your multidisciplinary team after diagnosis
- Where is the tumor located in my brain?
- What type or grade of brain tumor is it?
- Is the brain tumor malignant or benign?
- Is the brain tumor primary or secondary?
- What forms of treatment for my kind of brain tumor is available?
- What form of treatment do you recommend for my brain tumor?
- How long can I expect my treatment(s) to take?
- How will my treatment affect my overall health and functioning?
- What clinicians and experts will be participating in my treatment, and what skills and experience do they bring to the table?
A brain tumor diagnosis is a frightening event in anyone’s life, but with the right support from loved ones and medical experts, many treatment options are available and a full recovery is possible. If you are seeking out useful information about brain tumors, you are already on the right track. A qualified multidisciplinary team should be able to answer any specific questions you may have and help you understand your condition, your available options for treatment, and how to best proceed.
- “Brain and Other Central Nervous System Statistics.” CA: A Cancer Journal for Clinicians, American Cancer Society, 24 Aug. 2021, https://acsjournals.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.3322/caac.21693
- “Brain Tumor.” Mayo Clinic, Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research, 2022, https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/brain-tumor/symptoms-causes/syc-20350084#:~:text=A%20brain%20tumor%20can%20form,headaches%2C%20nausea%20and%20balance%20problems.
- “Brain Tumors – Patient Version.” National Cancer Institute, 2022, https://www.cancer.gov/types/brain