No one knows what causes brain tumors; there are only a few known risk factors that have been established by research. Children who receive radiation to the head have a higher risk of developing a brain tumor as adults, as do people who have certain rare genetic conditions such as neurofibromatosis or Li-Fraumeni syndrome.
A primary brain tumor is one that originates in the brain, and not all primary brain tumors are cancerous; benign tumors are not aggressive and normally do not spread to surrounding tissues, although they can be serious and even life threatening.
What Is a Tumor?
A tumor is a mass of tissue that’s formed by an accumulation of abnormal cells. Normally, the cells in your body age, die, and are replaced by new cells. With cancer and other tumors, something disrupts this cycle. Tumor cells grow, even though the body does not need them, and unlike normal old cells, they don’t die. As this process goes on, the tumor continues to grow as more and more cells are added to the mass.
Primary brain tumors emerge from the various cells that make up the brain and central nervous system and are named for the kind of cell in which they first form. The most common types of adult brain tumors are gliomas as in astrocytic tumors. These tumors form from astrocytes and other types of glial cells, which are cells that help keep nerves healthy.
The second most common type of adult brain tumors are meningeal tumors. These form in the meninges, the thin layer of tissue that covers the brain and spinal cord.
What Are the Symptoms of a Brain Tumor in Adults?
Symptoms of brain tumors vary according to the type of tumor and the location. Because different areas of the brain control different functions of the body, where the tumor lies affects the way symptoms are manifested.
Some tumors have no symptoms until they are quite large and then cause a serious, rapid decline in health. Other tumors may have symptoms that develop slowly.
A common initial symptom of a brain tumor is headaches. Often, they don’t respond to the usual headache remedies. Keep in mind that most headaches are unrelated to brain tumors.
Other symptoms include:
- Changes in speech or hearing
- Changes in vision
- Balance problems
- Problems with walking
- Numbness or tingling in the arms or legs
- Problems with memory
- Personality changes
- Inability to concentrate
- Weakness in one part of the body
It’s important to keep in mind that these symptoms can be caused by a number of different conditions. Don’t assume you have a brain tumor just because you experience some of them. Check with your doctor.
What’s the Difference Between Benign and Malignant Brain Tumors?
Benign brain tumors are noncancerous. Malignant primary brain tumors are cancers that originate in the brain, typically grow faster than benign tumors, and aggressively invade surrounding tissue. Although brain cancer rarely spreads to other organs, it can spread to other parts of the brain and central nervous system.
How Are Brain Tumors Treated?
Surgery to remove the tumor is typically the first option once a brain tumor has been diagnosed. However, some tumors can’t be surgically removed because of their location in the brain. In those cases, chemotherapy and radiation therapy may be options for killing and shrinking the tumor. Sometimes, chemotherapy or radiation is also used after surgery to kill any remaining cancer cells. Tumors that are deep in the brain or in areas that are difficult to reach may be treated with Gamma Knife therapy, which is a form of highly focused radiation therapy.
Because treatment for cancer also can damage healthy tissue, it’s important to discuss possible side and long-term effects of whatever treatment is being used with your doctor. The doctor can explain the risk and the possibility of losing certain faculties. The doctor can also explain the importance of planning for rehabilitation following treatment. Rehabilitation could involve working with several different therapists, such as:
- Physical therapist to regain strength and balance
- Speech therapist to address problems with speaking, expressing thoughts, or swallowing
- Occupational therapist to help manage daily activities such as using the bathroom, bathing, and dressing