Know the signs and symptoms of brain tumors
There are few conditions that are scarier or more devastating than a brain tumor. Knowing what signs and symptoms to watch for can help you to feel more informed and potentially receive an earlier diagnosis if one ever develops. Neurosurgeon David Straus, MD, answered some basic questions about a complicated condition.
What is a brain tumor?
Brain tumors are made up of an abnormal mass of tissue, caused by cells growing and multiplying uncontrollably. Normally, basic internal processes control cellular growth, but in some cases this control mechanism no longer functions, and uncontrolled growth can create a tumor. More than 150 different types of brain tumors have been documented, but the two main groups of brain tumors are primary and metastatic.
Primary brain tumors are created from tissues of the brain or the brain’s immediate surroundings. Some can be benign, or non-cancerous, while others are malignant.
Metastatic brain tumors first appear elsewhere in the body, such as the breast or lungs, and migrate to the brain, usually through the bloodstream. Metastatic tumors are considered cancer and are malignant. Metastatic brain tumors affect nearly one in four patients with cancer, or an estimated 150,000 people a year.
What causes brain tumors?
The risk factors for these tumors can be genetic, what we inherit from our family or they might be environmental. Environmental factors could involve exposure to chemicals or other carcinogens like tobacco, alcohol, certain foods or chemicals.
“It is not known why some people in an ‘environment’ develop tumors, while others do not,” Dr. Straus said.
What are some warning signs and symptoms of brain tumors?
Brain tumors can have a wide range of effects. Growth of any mass in the brain can cause pressure on the nearby tissue, which can result in impairment in the brain’s normal functioning. Signs and symptoms are determined by the specific part of the brain where the tumor is growing.
Symptoms that might occur because of a brain tumor include:
- Headaches that may be more severe in the morning or awaken the patient at night.
- Seizures or convulsions.
- Difficulty speaking, thinking or articulating.
- Weakness or paralysis in one part or one side of the body.
- Loss of balance or dizziness.
- Nausea or vomiting
- Swallowing difficulties.
- Confusion and disorientation.
Some people may not have any symptoms at all, although this is typically when a tumor is still small. A tumor may be discovered incidentally during evaluation for another medical problem or during a screening test for an underlying cancer. Some have even been located during routine vision screenings with an ophthalmologist.
How are brain tumors treated?
“In the past, the outcome for patients diagnosed with cancerous brain tumors was very poor, with typical survival rates of just several weeks,” said Dr. Straus. “More sophisticated diagnostic tools, in addition to innovative surgical and radiation approaches, have helped survival rates expand up to years, and also allowed for an improved quality of life for patients following diagnosis.”
Brain tumors (whether benign or malignant) are usually treated with surgery and with radiation or chemotherapy – alone or in various combinations. Decisions as to what treatment to use are made on a case-by-case basis and depend on several factors. Complete, or nearly-complete, surgical removal of the tumor is beneficial for patients.
There are risks and side effects associated with each type of therapy.
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