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Brain Cancer/Brain Tumors: Causes, Symptoms, Types and Treatments

Commonly asked questions about brain cancer and brain tumors:

What is a Brain Tumor?

A brain tumor is a mass collection of abnormal cells formed in your brain. These can either be cancerous (malignant) or non-cancerous (benign) and have the ability to form within your brain (primary tumors) or through other organs such as your lungs (secondary tumors).

These benign or malignant tumors have the possibility of increasing the pressure within your skull. However, according to The National Cancer Institute there will be about 23,380 new cases with regards to brain cancer in 2014. The location and size of the tumor depends on the functionality within your nervous system, but is recommended to take action immediately as it can be life-threatening.

What is Brain Cancer?

Primary or malignant tumors, such as Astrocytoma, are the prominent factors that contribute to brain cancer. The brain is responsible for essential functions including speech, movement, thoughts, memory, and sensory organs.

Primary brain tumors are distinguished based on the type of cell or tissue it affects, they may travel short distances within the brain, yet never outside of it. In comparison to these, secondary or metastatic brain cancer is spread through other organs and is significantly more common.

What are the Symptoms of Brain Cancer?

Symptoms of a brain tumor can differentiate greatly based on the size, location, and growth rate of the tumor. Although these are generally the symptoms acquired with the development of brain cancer, some may be the result of another medical condition that is not a tumor. Symptoms vary based on each stage of brain cancer:

  • Headaches: More frequent with a gradual increase in pain)
  • Seizures: Motor seizures and others attribute to the development of brain cancer, however certain drugs can help controlling or lessening their frequency)
  • Vision issues: Blurred, double, or loss of peripheral vision
  • Personality: Changes of judgement and behavior
  • Fatigue: Due to lack of sleep, continuously drowsy
  • Speech: Altered speech, as well as hearing
  • Balance difficulties: Issues in ability to walk or execute daily activities
  • Memory
  • Nausea or vomiting

What Causes Brain Cancer?

Primary brain tumors are caused when normal cells obtain errors in their DNA. The result of a growth in these mutilated cells form a tumor in which these are expanded and rapidly produced, limiting the production of healthy cells living in the brain. Different types of Brain tumors exist and are defined based on the location within a tissue nearing the brain and the variety of cells involved.

According to Mayo Clinic these are the types of cells involved within the tumor:

  • Astrocytoma
  • Acoustic Neuromas
  • Craniopharyngiomas
  • Gliomas
  • Germ Cell tumors
  • Meningiomas
  • Medulloblastoma
  • Pituitary Tumor/Adenoma
  • PNETs

What are Risk Factors Associated with Brain Cancer?

A risk factor is anything that increases the probability, or risk, of developing a brain tumor. Risk factors influence the development of a tumor, however most don’t cause one directly.

These are the following factors that may heighten the possibility of developing a brain tumor.

Genetic Risk Factors

  • Age: People of any age can develop a brain tumor however it is most common in children or the elderly.
  • Gender: Men have a higher risk of attaining a brain tumor however specific types of tumors, such as meningioma are more common in women. (refer to chart below)
  • Genetics: Five percent of brain tumors are hereditary and are linked to conditions such as Li-Fraumeni syndrome, neurofibromatosis, nevoid basal cell carcinoma syndrome, tuberous sclerosis, Turcot syndrome, and von HippelLindau disease.
  • Race and ethnicity: In the US, Caucasians are more likely to develop gliomas but less likely to develop meningiomas than people of color.

Environmental Risk Factors

Exposure to viruses

More research is currently being done to determine what other infections, viruses, or allergens can directly relate to the cause of brain cancer. However, ones established include the Epstein- Barr Virus (EBV) increasing the risk of CNS lyphoma, or “mono”. High levels of a common virus called Cytomegalovirus (CMV) have been found in the brain tumor tissue.

Head injury or seizures

Traumas have been researched extensively to see if it was directly correlated with brain tumors, and some studies have shown a link between trauma and meningioma. Tumors are the cause of seizures, however studies haven’t proven that seizures increase their risk.

How Do I Get Brain Cancer?

Doctors are still unsure as to what causes brain cancer directly, but by being aware of these risk factors it is important to take precautionary actions towards them to prevent brain tumors from forming.

What are the Differences Between Benign and Malignant Tumors?

There are two types of brain cancer: benign and malignant.

Benign: Benign tumors aren’t cancerous; therefore they are considered to be non-threatening and tend to remain in one spot without affecting other parts of the body. When they are removed it is unlikely they will return. However treatment is required if they near blood vessels or nerves.

Malignant: Malignant tumors are cancerous and made up of cells that can easily spread to more organs and bones where they continue to grow and form another tumor in that area. This is known as secondary, or metastasis cancer.

What are the Types of Brain Cancer?

These are the most frequently diagnosed types of tumors, as there are more than 120 types of brain tumors, most medical institutions use the World Health Organization to identify them.

Astrocytoma

Astrocytoma are tumors that arise from astrocytes. Astrocytomas are rankedlow- to high-grade. Lower astrocytomas are localized and grow slowly, whereas high-grade tumors grow at a rapid pace and require a different type of treatment.

I: Pilocytic astrocytoma

Pilocytic astrocytomas are most often found in children and teens. They grow slowly in the cerebrum, optic nerve pathwats, brain stem, and cerebellum and have well-defined borders surrounding them. This accounts for as low as two percent of all brain tumors. Surgery is the standard treatment in order to fully be removed without interruption of brain development.

II: Low-grade astrocytoma

Low–grade astrocytomas vary greatly with reference to anaplastic astrocytomas or glioblastomas, These tend to occur in the central hemisphere, and the cerebellum within children. These are less common, and have a median age of 35 years.

III: Anaplastic astrocytoma

Anaplastic astrocytomas  are uncommon among malignant cancerous tumors. Tumors arising from glial tissue are known as gliomas; however, anaplastic astrocytoma’s cause remains unknown.

IV: Glioblastoma

Glioblastomas are tumors that are highly malignant because of the variety of cells produced within it. They arise from astrocytes and are found in the central hemispheres, however could be found anywhere in the central nervous system.

Primary and secondary glioblastomas are both equally aggressive, but vary on the time period that they develop (secondary is slower). These increase in frequency while being directly related to age. Most of the symptoms depend on the area where glioblastoma’s are attacking, but have symptoms of any cancerous tumor.

Acoustic neuromas

Benign tumors that develop on the nerves that control balance and hearing from the inner ear to the brain.

Craniopharyngiomas

Craniopharyngiomas are uncommon, noncancerous tumors that start near the brain’s pituitary gland which secrete hormones controlling bodily functions. This can affect the pituitary gland and other structures near the brain.

Glomas

Tumors that begin in the central nervous system and include: astrocytomas, ependymoma, glioblastomas, oligoastrocytomas, and oligodendrogliomas.

Germ cell tumors

These may develop during childhood where the testicles or ovaries will from; however, sometimes they move to other parts of the body, such as the brain.

Meningiomas

A tumor that arises from the membranes that surround your central nervous system. Most however, are noncancerous.

Medulloblastoma

The most common cancerous brain tumors in children. These start in the lower back part of the brain and tend to spread through the spinal fluid, although they are less common in adults, they can occur.

Pituitary tumor/adenoma

Mostly benign tumors developing in the pituitary gland at the base of the brain. These can affect the pituitary hormones with effects throughout the body.

Primitive neuroectodermal tumors (PNET)

Primitive Neuroectodermal Tumors are uncommon, cancerous tumors that start in fetal cells in the brain and can occur anywhere within the brain.

How is Brain Cancer Diagnosed?

  • MRI
    • Intravenous (IV) gadolinium-enhanced MRI
    • Spinal MRI
    • Functional MRI (fMRI)
    • Magnetic Resonance Spectroscopy (MRS)
  • Surgical Removal
  • CT Scan
  • Positron emission tomogrophy (PET) scan
  • Cerebral arteriogram/angiogram
  • Lumbar puncture/spinal tap
  • Myelogram
  • Molecular testing
  • Neurological, vision, hearing tests
  • Neurocognitive assessment
  • Electroencephalography (EEG)
  • Evoked potentials

How are Brain Tumors Treated?

Treatment protocols vary widely according to the location of the tumor, its size, and type, your age, and any other medical conditions you may have. The most widely used treatments include surgery, radiation therapy, and chemotherapy. In most cases, more than one is used.

Brain cancer treatment options

Surgery

Surgery is the first type of treatment when dealing with most benign and malignant tumors because of the possibility of having the tumor removed without no neurological damage.

Surgery is oftentimes necessary to relieve symptoms by removing the tumor, and provide a sample for an exact diagnosis.

The most common types of surgery for the brain tumors are listed.

  • Biopsy: Removal of a sample tumor tissue.
  • Craniotomy: Removal of a portion of the skull that is replaced after the doctor has found and removed.
  • Craniotomy: Similar to craniotomy, however, the skull is not replaced after removal.
  • Debulking: Reduction of tumor size.
  • Partial removal: Due to risk of neurological damage, only one part of the tumor is removed.
  • Complete removal: Surgical removal of the tumor in its entirety.
  • Shunt: Insertion of a drainage system that permits excess fluid from the brain to move to another part of the body.
  • Ommaya reservoir: Insertion of a small container under the scalp (attached to a tube) to deliver chemotherapy treatment and remove cerebrospinal fluid to detect the presence of normal cells
  • Skull base surgery: Refers to the location of a tumor as well as a technique to remove it in that area.
  • Transphenoidal surgery: Used to operate pituitary adenomas and craniopharyngiomas
  • Laster Interstitial Thermal Therapy (LITT): Two twist drill holes are punctured through the skull to achieve a minimally invasive surgical technique.

Radiation

Radiation is intended to kill tumors directly or stop them from growing or developing, affecting both normal and tumor cells. The type of tumor depends on the success rate of radiation proving these things from happening.

Size and type matter greatly and can be a deciding factor if they cannot be treated this way. The purpose of radiation is to eliminate tumors rapidly, including remaining cells. If the patient is an adolescent or child, radiation may be replaced with chemotherapy.

Chemotherapy

This procedure for removing brain tumors are applied directly to the area of the brain tumor with the use of drugs. These enter the bloodstream and reach areas throughout the body.

A common challenge when using  is the ability to find drugs that can cause the barrier protecting the brain in order to reach the tumor cells.

A benign tumor tends to use the Cytoxic drugs to kill cells throughout the body, in comparison to a malignant one that uses Cytostatic drugs to identify and attack the cells with minimal harm to normal cells. The purpose of these is to keep cancer cells from reproducing.

Are Non-surgical Brain Tumor Treatment Options Available?

Yes. However, without a proper diagnosis it is hard to tell if that could be a possibility. Most patients will be required to take a biopsy to take a tissue diagnosis locating the type and size of tumor. Once this is recognized it is easier to take non-surgical procedures, whether it be standard or focused radiation treatments.

What are the Survival Rates for Brain Cancer Patients?

Statistics courtesy of American Cancer Society, World Health Organization:
*Statistics based on five-year relative survival rate

GradeType of Tumor>5-10 (age)>20-44 (age)>45-54 (age)>55-64 (age)
1Low-grade (diffuse) astrocytoma80%-85%65%43%21%
3Anaplastic astrocytoma25%-30%49%29%10%
4Glioblastoma20%17%6%4%
2Oligodendroglioma90%-95%85%79%64%
3Anaplastic oligodendroglioma30%67%55%38%
3Ependymoma/anaplastic ependymoma75%91%86%85%
1-3MeningiomaRare92%77%67%
Low-grade (1-2)Craniopharyngiomas<90%
Low-grade (1-2)Germ cell tumors90%87%52%40%
1-3Medulloblastoma (PNET)75%RareRareRare
3-4PNET60%-65%60%Dependent on growth of tumorDependent on growth of tumor

How to Prevent Cancer

Cancer prevention can vary based on different research, and opinionated studies or news reports. However, these simple lifestyle changes can make a difference in the prevention of developing or forming cancer.

  1. Eat Healthy
  2. Limit or Stop your use of Tabacco
  3. Have a Balanced Lifestyle
  4. Avoid Risk Behavior
  5. Visit your Doctor
  6. Immunization
  7. Protect your Skin from the Sun

What Drugs are Used To Treat Brain Cancer?

The following drugs and medications are in some way related to, or used in the treatment of brain cancer, according to Drugs.com:

  • Lomustine
  • Afinitor
  • Platinol
  • Cyclophosphamide
  • Zortress
  • Gliadel
  • CeeNU
  • Platinol-AQ
  • Afinitor Disperz
  • BiCNU
  • Methotrexate
  • Cisplatin
  • Gleostine
  • Everolimus
  • Carmustine

View Sources

  1. Brain Cancer Symptoms – MayoClinic.org
  2. Brain Cancer Types – BrainTumor.org
  3. Brain Cancer Diagnosis – Cancer.net
  4. Brain Cancer Treatment – CancerCenter.com
  5. Brain Cancer Statistics – American Cancer Society
  6. Brain Cancer Prevention – Mayo Clinic

References