Brain tumor

Medical quality assurance by Dr. Albrecht Nonnenmacher, MD at February 16, 2016
StartDiseasesBrain tumor

Brain tumors affect both the very young and the elderly. They are the most common cancer among those under the age of 19, and the majority of brain tumors occur in those over the age of 65. The cause of brain tumors are unknown, which means that it is vital to know the warning signs.


Definition & Facts

A brain tumor is an abnormal growth in the tissue of the brain which will often disrupt brain functions. Primary brain tumors are tumors that originated in the brain and which rarely metastasize or spread to other organs. Metastatic brain tumors grow in another part of the body and have spread to the brain. Some tumors are malignant, which means that they are cancerous. Others are benign, which means that they are not cancerous.

Symptoms & Complaints

There are a lot of different symptoms that might indicate that someone has a brain tumor. Long-lasting headaches or headaches of a severe intensity are a common symptom. Loss of balance, dizziness or feelings of vertigo are also frequent. Mental "haziness" or "dullness" such as difficulty speaking or a lack of comprehension is a possible indicator.

Digestive problems, particularly chronic nausea or frequent vomiting are a warning sign. Muscular issues are usually a main indicator, which could include overall weakness or weakness on one half of the body. Other warning signs include blurred vision, sleepiness, or seizures. The seizures can be very sudden, lasting up to three minutes and may cause a loss of consciousness. The patient might even stop breathing for 30 seconds and turn blue. More than half of people with brain tumors have at least one seizure.

Some people that have developed brain tumors display changes in their personality. Sometimes there's a subtle shift that causes the person to seem somehow "different" while other patients might be prone to angry outbursts. Some patients develop strange speech patterns or experience memory loss.


What actually causes a brain tumor is still a mystery. Research has revealed a few risk factors. Children who go through medical procedures that involve radiation tend to have a higher risk of developing a brain tumor in their lifetime. In fact, radiation may be the only confirmed risk factor currently known. Those who have frequent radiotherapy, X-rays and CT scans to the head are much more likely to develop a brain tumor in their lifetime.

Genetics may also play a role, particularly those with neurofibromatosis. Age also seems to be a factor. Most people who have a brain tumor are aged 65 or over. Cigarette smoking may contribute to causing brain tumors, and patients infected with the HIV virus have a higher risk of developing a brain tumor.

Those who had cancer in their childhood years have a higher chance of developing a brain tumor later in life. Adults who have had leukemia or non-Hodgkin lymphoma are at risk as well. In general, people who have had cancer are at an increased risk. This could be due to certain treatment such as radiotherapy and the cancer drug, methotrexate.

Diagnosis & Tests

A physician begins the diagnostic process by investigating the patient's family history and looking for warning signs relating to balance and memory. The doctor will usually test the patient's vision and ability to walk in a straight line. If the doctor suspects the possibility of a tumor, the patient will undergo a scan.

Neuroimaging scans usually require that a dye be injected into the patient's arteries. The most common type of scan is a CT scan. CT scans create a three dimensional image of a head, creating a cross-section view that can reveal tumors or other abnormalities. The best scan to actually diagnose the type of brain tumor is an MRI scan. MRIs use radio waves to form a computer image of the brain which can give a good image of the tumor and its location.

An angiogram is an X-ray that will show the arteries and veins in the patient's brain. Diffusion tensor imaging can reveal the "wiring" of a brain, allowing a physician to get a map to the brain. These scans are typically used to aid a doctor who is preparing for brain surgery.

Treatment & Therapy

Treatment for brain tumors differs depending on the type and location of the tumor, as well as the age of the patient. Usually prior to treatment, patients are given drugs to reduce swelling and some will be given medication to prevent seizures.

A brain tumor can be removed through surgery, either partially or completely. Surgery can also surgically reduce the size of the tumor, a process called debulking. A craniotomy may be performed to temporarily remove a part of the skull so that the surgeon can gain access to the tumor.

Radiation therapy involves the use of rays that damage cancer cells and stop them from growing. This method is delivered either externally for a few weeks, or by having radioactive material placed directly into the tumor. A Gamma Knife might also be used, which is a single dose of radiation directed right at the tumor.

Prevention & Prophylaxis

Because the causes of brain tumors aren't known, it is difficult to prevent them. The key is early detection. If a malignant tumor has time to linger, it can metastasize to the brain and become inoperable. The best bet is to avoid any potential causes, including exposure to toxic chemicals and radiation exposure. Eating a diet rich in fruits and vegetables may lower risk. Keeping in shape, exercising and living a healthy lifestyle is the best known form of prevention.