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Brain Cancer: Medical Information on Causes, Diagnosis, Symptoms and Treatment

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Quick Answers about Brain Cancer

  • Brain Cancer Overview
  • Brain Cancer Types
  • Metastatic Brain Cancer
  • Grading Brain Tumors
  • Brain Cancer Causes
  • Brain Cancer Symptoms
  • Diagnosing Brain Cancer
  • Brain Cancer Treatment Options

Brain Cancer

Brain Cancer Overview

While many types of cancer like breast, kidney, colon and lung cancer can metastasize or spread to the brain, primary brain cancer originates in brain cells. Usually, cancerous tissue forms of mass and develops the tumor, interfering with brain function that involves with normal body functions, memory, sensation and muscle control. The tumor can be formed with benign (non-cancerous) cells or malignant (cancer) cells.

Statistics maintained by the American Cancer Society and National Cancer Institute reveal that more than 16,000 deaths occur every year in the U.S. due to brain cancer, and almost 24,000 new cases are diagnosed. Out of those, approximately 1 out of 20 cases involve brain tumors developed by hereditary genetic conditions including tuberous sclerosis, neurofibromatosis, and others.

Brain Cancer Types

Primary brain tumors can be categorized into specific types based on the brain tissue that has become abnormal in size, shape, and growth. These types include:

  • Gliomas including ependymomas, oligodendroglioma, choroid plexus papilloma and astrocytoma
  • Meningioma
  • Medulloblastoma – primitive neuroectodermal tumor
  • Vestibular Schwannoma – acoustic neuroma
  • Pituitary Adenoma
  • Germ Cell Tumor
  • Craniopharyngiomas

Each classification reflects a specific kind of abnormal cell growing in a normal brain. Grading provides the opportunity for the physician to better understand the level of concern on the aggressiveness of the brain cancer.

Metastatic Brain Cancer

Metastatic brain cancer involves tumor cells that originate in another area of the body and spread (metastasize) to the brain. While this is a secondary brain cancer, the metastasized cancer is often classified as a primary cancer type. As an example, metastatic lung, breast, kidney, skin (melanoma), and colon cancer can spread to other organs including into the brain through the body’s lymphatic system, through direct extension or through the bloodstream. These cancers are typically named after the organ or tissue where the cancer originated.

Grading Brain Tumors

Not every brain tumor a similar in size, shape, and severity. Because of that, doctors and researchers assign grades to tumors and how they appear microscopically (under the microscope). The National Cancer Institute outlines four specific grades of brain tumors from benign to aggressive. They include:

  • Grade I – These benign tissues are similar in appearance to normal brain cells and slowly increase in size.
  • Grade II – At this stage, the brain tumor has become malignant and appears as abnormal cells under the microscope.
  • Grade III – At this advancing stage, the actively growing cells in the brain tumor have become malignant and appear as anaplastic (distinctly abnormal) in shape.
  • Grade IV – At this late advanced age, the malignant brain tissue grows quickly, causing significant pressure to the brain, which can destroy healthy tissue.

Brain Cancer Causes

Primary brain cancers and tumors can develop from various brain tissue that could include astrocytes, glial cells, and other brain cells. In addition, metastatic brain tumors and cancer can be the result of cancer cells from other parts of the body reaching the brain through the lymph or blood system. Scientists and researchers have found various risk factors that have the potential of increasing the development of brain cancer. Some of these risk factors include:

  • Occupations where the worker handles chemicals, jet fuel or hazardous oils, such as embalmers, oil refinery workers, and chemists.
  • Family-Associated Brain Cancer where other family members have suffered from the disease. (However, no direct linkage or the passage of traits of brain tumor development through genetics from a parent to a child has been proven).
  • Age is a significant risk factor where the increase of developing brain tumors rises exponentially in older adults. However, specific forms of brain tumors happen exclusively during a child’s younger years.
  • Radiation Exposure is a significant problem that increases the potential risk of developing a brain tumor.

There are factors that might or might not be the exact cause of developing brain cancer. These include cigarette smoking, HIV infection, radiation treatment to the head, and exposure to harmful environmental toxins.

Brain Cancer Symptoms

The symptoms and signs of brain tumors and brain cancer are often dependent on the location, size, and rate of growth of the tumor or cancer cells. However, the general indicators that a brain tumor might be present include:

  • Unexplained vomiting or nausea
  • Patterns of headaches that have unexpectedly changed or newly formed
  • Increasing frequency of headaches that have become significantly more severe over tim
  •  Difficulty maintaining balanced
  • Vision problems that could involve a loss of peripheral vision, double vision or blurry eyesight
  • Difficulties in speaking
  • Gradual loss of movement, range of motion or sensation in the leg or arm
  • Hearing problems
  • Changes in behavior or personality
  • Confusion and handling daily activities and normal matters
  • Unexplained or unexpected seizures

If any of the symptoms arise or remain persistent, it is crucial to see a doctor immediately.

Diagnosing Brain Cancer

Doctors who specialize in diagnosing brain cancer will use various procedures, tests, and methods to verify the presence of abnormal brain cells. These include:

  • Performing a Neurological Examination – Performing a neurological examination including balance, coordination, hearing, vision, reflexes and strength can reveal specific clues that a portion of the brain might be affected or injured by a brain cancer or tumor.
  • Imaging Testing – MRI (Magnetic Resonance Imaging) is an effective tool for diagnosing brain tumors. The doctor might inject dye into the patient’s vein prior to the imaging test to help evaluate the level of cancer and for planning an effective treatment.
  • CT and PET Scans – Computerized tomography (CT) and positron emission tomography (PET) scans are highly effective in locating the spread of a brain tumor to other body organs and areas. The scans are often used on the lungs and other organs to assist in determining exactly where cancer initially started.
  • Biopsies – The doctor can obtain a biopsy to collect abnormal tissue that will then be viewed by a professional under a microscope to determine if the cells are benign or cancerous. The information obtained through a biopsy is crucial in establishing a prognosis from the diagnosis to form an effective treatment.

Brain Cancer Treatment Options

Treating brain cancer and tumors is highly complex and often involves interdisciplinary consultations with specializing doctors including neurosurgeons, radiation oncologist, oncologists and primary health care providers. The protocol for treating the patient will likely depend on the tumor’s location, type, size, the patient’s age and any other medical issues that could be a challenge during treatment. Common procedures and treatments include:

  • Brain Cancer Surgery – The surgeon may remove the tumor or obtain a tumor biopsy through surgical procedures.
  • Drugs to Reduce Swelling – Decadron (dexamethasone) has been shown to be highly effective at relieving swelling in the brain caused by brain tumors and cancer cells.
  • Anti-Compulsive Medications – These drugs help to prevent or control seizures
  • Excess Cerebral Spinal Fluid Elimination – Many individuals suffering from brain tumors build up excess cerebrospinal fluid around in the brain. The surgeon will install a shunt (plastic tube) in the area where the fluid collects and shunt the fluid to another area of the body under the skin.

New procedures, surgeries, and clinical trials have become available in treating many forms of brain cancer to help increase survival rates.

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