Brain Tumor Causes, Symptoms & Treatment

Brain Tumor Causes, Symptoms & Treatment

There are two main types of tumors: malignant or cancerous tumors and benign tumors.Brain tumours can be either malignant (cancerous) or benign (non-cancerous).Brain tumours can be primary or secondary. a primary tumour is a tumour that starts in the brain. A secondary brain tumour is a tumour that has spread to the brain from somewhere else in the body.

What Is a Brain Tumor?

A brain tumor is a growth of abnormal cells. Brain tumors are typically categorized as primary or secondary. Primary brain tumors originate in the brain and can be benign or malignant. Secondary brain tumors (metastatic) are malignant and more common.

There are two main types of brain tumors:

  • Benign Brain Tumors A benign brain tumor consists of cells that grow slowly and do not spread to other areas of the brain or body. They have distinct boundaries. Surgery alone may cure this type of tumor.

  • Malignant Brain Tumors A malignant brain tumor is life-threatening. It may be malignant because it consists of cancer cells, or it may be called malignant because of its location. In other words, a brain tumor composed of benign cells—but located in a vital area—may behave in a malignant fashion. A malignant brain tumor made up of cancerous cells can invade and destroy healthy tissue so these areas cannot function properly.

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 will spread to other parts of the brain and central nervous system.

Benign brain tumors usually have clearly defined borders and usually are not deeply rooted in brain tissue. This makes them easier to surgically remove, assuming they are in an area of the brain that can be safely operated on. But even after they’ve been removed, they can still come back, although benign tumors are less likely to recur than malignant ones.

Although benign tumors in other parts of the body can cause problems, they are not generally considered to be a major health problem or to be life-threatening. But even a benign brain tumor can be a serious health problem. Brain tumors damage the cells around them by causing inflammation and putting increased pressure on the tissue under and around it as well as inside the skull.

Brain Tumor Symptoms

The following are the most common symptoms of a brain tumor. However, each patient may experience symptoms differently. Symptoms vary depending on the size and location of the tumor. Any tumor, extra tissue or fluid can cause increased intracranial pressure (pressure on the brain) and result in the following symptoms:

Symptoms (signs) of benign brain tumors often are not specific. The following is a list of symptoms that, alone or combined, can be caused by benign brain tumors; unfortunately, these symptoms can occur in many other diseases:

  • Headache

  • Vomiting (usually in the morning)

  • Nausea

  • Personality changes

  • Irritability

  • Drowsiness

  • Depression

  • Decreased cardiac and respiratory function

  • Altered mental status

Brain tumor symptoms in the cerebrum (front of brain) may include:

  • Seizures

  • Visual changes

  • Slurred speech

  • Paralysis or weakness on half of the body or face

  • Increased intracranial pressure

  • Drowsiness and/or confusion

  • Personality changes

Symptoms of a brain tumor in the brainstem (middle of brain) may include:

  • Seizures

  • Endocrine problems (diabetes and/or hormone regulation)

  • Visual changes or double vision

  • Headaches

  • Paralysis of nerves/muscles of the face or half of the body

  • Respiratory changes

  • Increased intracranial pressure

Symptoms of a brain tumor in the cerebellum (back of brain) may include:

  • Increased intracranial pressure

  • Vomiting (usually occurs in the morning without nausea)

  • Headache

  • Uncoordinated muscle movements

  • Problems walking (ataxia)

Brain Tumor Causes

The causes of primary brain tumours are not fully understood. Researchers around the world are investigating possible causes. We know that brain and spinal cord tumours are more common in people with certain inherited or genetic conditions. They are also more common in people exposed to very high doses of radiation. However, for most people, the cause of their brain tumour is unknown.

Many people ask whether or not mobile phones cause cancer and more specifically, brain tumours. At the moment, the evidence is very weak that mobile phones cause cancer. Importantly, despite over a decade of widespread mobile phone usage in Victoria, there has been no upward trend observed in brain cancer incidence rates. Globally, brain tumour incidence rates have also remained relatively steady, but research continues in this area.
Primary brain tumor causes are largely unknown. Researchers believe most brain tumors are caused by a combination of events. Current areas of investigation focus on:

  • Genetic cell mutations

  • Defects

  • Viruses

  • Injury

  • Chemicals

  • Hormones

  • Environmental factors

  • Occupational factors

Brain tumors are not contagious. It is clear, however, that a large portion of brain tumors result from other cancers, these are called secondary brain tumors.

  • vision problems

  • hearing problems

  • balance problems

  • changes in mental ability (for example, concentration, memory, speech)

  • seizures, muscle jerking

  • change in sense of smell

  • nausea/vomiting

  • facial paralysis

  • headaches

  • numbness in extremities

Causes of a malignant brain tumour 

Most malignant brain tumours are caused by a cancer that started somewhere else in the body and spread to the brain through the bloodstream.

The cause of primary malignant brain tumours (cancerous tumours that start in the brain) is not fully understood.

Underlying disease

Some genetic conditions can increase your risk of a primary malignant brain tumour. These conditions include:

  • neurofibromatosis

  • tuberous sclerosis

  • Turcot syndrome

  • Li-Fraumeni cancer syndrome

  • von Hippel-Lindau syndrome

  • Gorlin syndrome

These conditions tend to cause malignant gliomas (tumours of the glial tissue, which binds nerve cells and fibres together) that appear in childhood or early adulthood, whereas most gliomas start later in adulthood.

Other possible causes

Radiotherapy to the brain increases your risk of a brain tumour, although this is still uncommon.

It is also thought that you are at an increased risk if you have a family history of brain tumours and are exposed to chemicals (such as formaldehyde).

Mobile phone safety

There have been reports in the media about a possible connection between brain tumours and the radiofrequency (RF) energy emitted by mobile phones. RF energy produces heat, which can increase body temperature and damage tissue exposed to it.

It is thought that the amount of RF energy people are exposed to by mobile phones is too low to produce significant tissue heating or an increase in body temperature.

However, research is under way to establish whether RF energy has any effects on our health in the long term. No definitive conclusions have yet been reached.

Diagnosis of brain tumours

If your doctor suspects a brain tumour, you will be referred to a specialist doctor called a neurologist or neurosurgeon. Some of the tests they will do may include:

  • neurological examination – such as checking your muscle strength, reflexes, memory and your ability to tell hot from cold on your skin (sensation tests)

  • eye test – the optic nerve, which connects the eye to the brain, tends to bulge a little if a tumour is present

  • CT scan – three dimensional x-rays. A dye will be injected or swallowed if you are having a full body scan, so that anything unusual will show more clearly

  • Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) is used to map the functional area of a patient’s brain. This technique provides an added degree of precision in guidance and navigation during surgery and maximizes tumor resection while minimizing the possibility of weakness, blindness and speech loss.

  • magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) – similar to a CT scan, but magnetism instead of x-rays is used to create a picture. This test will almost certainly show up any brain tumour

  • x-rays and blood tests – to test your general health

  • angiogram – injected dye is x-rayed as it flows through the blood vessels of your brain. This is not done for all types of brain tumours.

  • MR SPECT is a highly effective method of scanning the brain that can detect tumors that other brain scans might miss. It is a noninvasive test that offers results in real time, decreasing the need for biopsies and other surgeries.

  • Stereotactic Biopsy is a procedure that obtains a specimen of the tumor so that a neuropathologist can analyze it. The goal of the biopsy is to confirm a diagnosis. This minimally invasive approach can be used to obtain a diagnosis either before proceeding with a craniotomy or instead of a larger procedure.

There may be other scans and tests that you will need to help diagnose your tumour. This will depend on the type of tumour you have and whether it has spread to other parts of the body.

Test results can take a few days to come back. It is very natural to feel anxious waiting to get your results. It can help to talk to a close friend or relative about how you are feeling. You can also contact the Cancer Council Helpline on 13 11 20 and speak with a cancer nurse.

Treatment for brain tumours

Treatment aims to remove the tumour or at least slow its growth and relieve the symptoms. Some of the treatment options include:

  • Surgery – some tumours can be completely removed. In other cases, a tumour may have spread throughout the brain and may be very close to important structures in the brain. In this case, only pieces of it can be removed.

  • Radiotherapy – uses x-rays to kill cancer cells. In children, low doses are used because the x-rays can slow a child’s development and growth. Treatment is carefully planned to do as little harm as possible to normal body tissues.

  • Chemotherapy – uses anti-cancer drugs to stop the cancer cells from multiplying. Chemotherapy is rarely used for adults, but often used for children because of the possible side effects of radiotherapy.

  • Steroid therapy – uses medication to reduce the swelling around the tumour. These do not treat the tumour itself, but they do help to relieve the swelling and pressure caused by the tumour.

  • Complementary and alternative therapies – when used alongside your conventional cancer treatment, some of these therapies can make you feel better and improve quality of life. Others may not be so helpful and in some cases, may be harmful. The Cancer Council Victoria booklet called Understanding complementary therapies can be a useful resource.

All treatments have side effects. These will vary depending on the type of treatment you are having. Many side effects are temporary, but some may be permanent. Your doctor will explain all the possible side effects before your treatment begins.

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