A brain tumour diagnosis is likely to be the most frightening diagnosis you will ever receive. Having a brain tumour once meant certain death, but advancements in surgical procedures and treatment options have improved both the quality of life and the chances of survival for patients. According to the National Cancer Institute, approximately 21,000 new brain tumours are diagnosed each year in the United States.
A brain tumour occurs when abnormal cells begin to grow in the brain and group together to form a tumour. Tumours can also result from cancer that has spread to the brain from other parts of the body. Tumours commonly affect the cerebrum, the largest part of the brain; the cerebellum, located at the base of the skull; and the brainstem, the lower part of the brain that connects to the spinal cord. Brain tumours can be cancerous or non-cancerous. Despite the type, if a tumour is affecting your health, it will need to be removed or treated.
Symptoms of brain tumours may include headaches, seizures, numbness or loss of motion in a leg or arm, hearing loss, dizziness, difficulty with speech, trouble with balance, memory loss, confusion, loss of vision or double vision. Some people experience nausea or vomiting that is more severe in the morning. Headaches also tend to be more severe in the morning. The type of symptoms depends upon the tumour location.
Brain tumours are classified as primary tumours or secondary tumours. There are several types of gliomas, the most common form of primary brain tumour. These tumours form in the brain's supportive tissues. Brainstem gliomas, astrocytomas, ependyomas, oligodendrogliomas are all glial tumours. Brainstem gliomas form in the lowest part of the brain, the brainstem, while astrocytomas occur most commonly in the cerebrum in adults and in the cerebellum and cerebrum in children. Ependymomas, most common in children and teenagers, form in the ventricles and spinal cord. Oligodendrogliomas are rare tumours usually found in the cerebrum.
Other types of primary brain tumours include medulloblastomas, which occur primarily in children, and meningiomas, which occur in the meninges, the membrane layers that cover the brain and spinal cord. Secondary tumours occur when cancer spreads from other areas of the body to the brain. Metastatic kidney, skin, lung, colon, bowel and breast cancers can cause brain tumours.
If your doctor suspects that you may have a brain tumour, you will be referred to a neurologist, a doctor who specialises in the diagnosis and treatment of disorders and diseases affecting the brain, spinal cord and nervous system. The neurologist will check your coordination, reflexes, vision and hearing, as a brain tumour may affect these things.
Your neurologists may ask you to undergo a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scan or computerised tomography (CAT) scan, as both tests provide detailed images of the brain. Positron emission tomography (PET), single-photon emission computed tomography (SPECT) or magnetic resonance spectroscopy (MRS) are helpful in measuring tumour activity and blood flow in the brain. An angiogram, a special X-ray performed after dye has been injected in to the body, can help doctors detect any problems or tumours around the arteries. In some cases, a biopsy of the tumour will be needed to determine the appropriate treatment. During a biopsy, a small sample of the tumour is removed during a surgical procedure.
Surgery is recommended if the tumour can be safely removed without causing any damage to the brain. In some cases, the tumour cannot be removed or only part of it can be removed. In these cases, radiation and chemotherapy treatments are used to help shrink the tumour. During radiation therapy, a high dose of radiation is aimed at the head, to kill cancerous cells, while chemotherapy is used to kill cells with special medications. There are numerous clinical trials dedicated to finding new treatments for brain tumours. If you are interested in joining a trial, take a look at the National Cancer Institute's Clinical Trial search page. You will find the link in the Resources section of this article.