David Straus, MD, Palmetto Health-USC Neurosurgery, answers some basic questions about a complicated condition.
What is a brain tumor?
A brain tumor is an abnormal mass of tissue in which cells grow and multiply uncontrollably, seemingly unchecked by the mechanisms that control normal cells. 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 originate from the tissues of the brain or the brain's immediate surroundings and can be benign or malignant. Metastatic brain tumors arise 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 tumors to the brain affect nearly one in four patients with cancer, or an estimated 150,000 people a year.
What causes them?
The risk factors for brain tumors can be genetic, what we inherit from our family, or environmental (exposure to chemicals, certain foods, tobacco, alcohol, etc.). It is not known why some people in an “environment” develop brain tumors, while others do not.
How do I know if I have one?
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, but may 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, 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.
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. 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) usually are treated with surgery, radiation and/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 a number of factors. There are risks and side effects associated with each type of therapy. It is generally accepted that complete or nearly complete surgical removal of a brain tumor is beneficial for a patient.
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