What are Brain Tumors? Symptoms, Diagnosis and Treatments

A brain tumor is a type of growth or mass within the brain that’s the result of an accumulation of abnormal cells.

This growth can be classified as cancerous or non-cancerous.

The issue with brain tumors is that there are hardly any known causes for the development of these abnormal cells.

The reason that the growth of these cells is abnormal is simply due to the fact that cells such as these are supposed to naturally age and die, whereupon they are replaced by new cells.

When a tumor begins to develop, this process is disrupted.

The difference between tumor cells and normal cells is that the former don’t die.

They linger on until more and more cells are added.

The cells that make up a tumor generally come from both the central nervous system and the brain.

There are many different types of brain tumors that a person can suffer from, some rarer than others.

The two most common of these types are astrocytic and gliomas tumors.

Both of these form from cells that are designed to keep the nerves healthy.

Another common type of brain tumor is what is known as a meningeal tumor.

This simply means that the tumor has been formed within the meninges tissue that’s situated around the spinal cord.

When attempting to fully understand what brain tumors are, it’s essential that you know about the difference between a benign tumor and a malignant one.

In essence, the benign tumors aren’t cancerous, which makes them the most harmless types of tumors around.

On the other hand, malignant tumors originate within the brain and are entirely cancerous.

Not only are these tumors more harmful when compared to benign ones, but they also tend to grow at an expedited rate and spread much more rapidly to surrounding tissue.

This is why it’s so important that a brain tumor is caught early.

Otherwise, there’s a good chance that the tumor has spread and infected other, more dangerous areas of the body.

Benign tumors are notable in that the boundaries of them are more visible and aren’t too embedded within the brain tissue.

When a benign tumor is located in an easy-to-operate area, the operation is typically much easier to perform given that it’s not too deep within the brain tissue.

When a malignant tumor is removed, there’s always a high risk that it will grow back.

Benign tumors can also grow back at a later time, but the chances of this are dramatically reduced when compared to malignant tumors.

While benign tumors are much less dangerous than malignant ones, they may still cause a number of adverse symptoms and side effects the longer they remain within the body.

No matter what type of tumor you have, having it removed immediately upon identification is essential for your continued well-being.

 

Brain Tumors History

Brain tumors have been around since the dawn of man.

However, little was known about them and how they worked within the body until medical technology advanced enough to the point where small discoveries could be made.

Even today, there are many things that remain unknown about brain tumors and what causes them.

The same holds true for most forms of cancer.

Today, advancements are being made every year in the study and treatment of these tumors.

However, it wasn’t until the 1970s that brain tumors could even be imaged by a doctor.

The mid 70’s brought forth the invention of CT scanning.

These scans provided doctors with the ability to see the development of tumors within the brain tissue.

Later that decade came the first successful form of chemotherapy for the glioma types of brain cancer.

This came in the form of a drug called carmustine.

This medication directly attacked gliomas by passing through the blood-brain barrier.

While this initial chemotherapy drug did have some serious side effects, it was the first of its kind that was actually successful in substantially reducing the size of a brain tumor.

Towards the end of the 1970s, radiation therapy also became a mainstay as a treatment for glioblastoma.

This is one of the more aggressive forms of brain cancer, which is why this type of treatment was so helpful.

During the early 1980s, MRI technology gained widespread usage due to its ability to spot very small tumors that would otherwise be nearly impossible to see by doctors.

This allows for early treatment before the tumor has grown to the point where it’s inoperable or begins to spread.

A type of treatment referred to as gamma knife also started being used in the treatment of brain tumors during the 1980s.

This therapy makes use of radiation waves in an attempt to completely alter cancer cell function as a means of stopping its growth.

This method of treatment leaves surrounding brain tissue practically untouched.

Towards the conclusion of the 20th century, a newer chemotherapy drug called temozolomide was created to assist with the treatment of more serious glioma.

It was found that this drug helps to improve life expectancy by more than two years in many cases.

In 2003, many malignant brain tumors started to be treated much more effectively with the introduction of a chemotherapy treatment called a wafer.

This treatment utilizes a biodegradable wafer that’s surgically implanted as a means of delaying tumor growth.

In doing so, life expectancy has generally improved for patients who have been provided with such a treatment.

One of the most notable benefits that this treatment has on cancer is that it works continuously, allowing for a slower regrowth of any removed tumors.

A nine-gene test developed in 2010 can actually predict how a patient will respond to therapy for their glioblastoma tumor.

These are just some of the many developments in medical technology over the last fifty years that have helped in shrinking current tumors, removing them effectively, identifying them early on, and so much more.

 

Risk Factors

While no exact causes are known for the development of brain tumors of any type, there are numerous risk factors that you should be aware of.

Staying away from these risk factors should lower your chances of becoming affected by a tumor.

One of the primary risks for the development of brain tumors is age, which can’t be avoided like other factors.

As a person ages, their risk for a brain tumor only increases.

While this is the case, brain tumors can affect someone at basically any age.

There are even some types of brain tumors that affect only children.

Another common risk factor with brain tumors is exposure to radiation.

People who are exposed to what is known as ionizing radiation are much more susceptible to developing a brain tumor.

Unfortunately, this type of radiation is used within radiation therapy. It’s also the type that’s present in nuclear bombs.

Anyone who has a family history of brain tumors will be somewhat more susceptible to them as well.

This family history might simply involve genetic syndromes that lead to an increase in the risk of brain tumors.

It’s important to note that less than 10 percent of all cancer types are due to a hereditary presence of brain tumors.

Race and ethnicity are also linked to a better chance of having one form of cancer over another.

For instance, white people are more likely to suffer from gliomas as opposed to meningioma than black people.

It’s also been found that people who live in Northern Europe are almost twice as likely to be affected by a brain tumor than people in Japan.

There have also been a wide array of studies in recent years that have been designed to test what some additional risk factors may be.

The types of risk factors that are still being studied include those of an environmental nature.

These possible environmental factors include cigarette smoking, exposure to residential power lines, and even cell phone usage.

Exposure to pesticides, solvents, and oil products are also believed to play a part in the development of a brain tumor.

When it comes to animal testing, exposure to infections and viruses has increased the likelihood of a tumor.

While it’s unknown at the moment if this applies to humans, it’s being studied.

In general, it’s still unclear as to whether or not these are truly risk factors for brain tumors or not.

 

Brain Tumors Screening

When you believe that you might be suffering from the presence of some form of the tumor within your brain, it’s important that you go through screening to identify whether you are or not.

When it comes to screening for brain tumors, this screening is implemented with two forms of technology.

These technologies include a CT scan and an MRI.

These are also typically used in the diagnosis of tumors.

However, having screening done on an occasional basis will give you peace of mind that your brain is healthy and cancer-free.

The two types of tests used in the screening for tumors include an MRI and a CT scan.

An MRI scan basically results in an image of a possible brain tumor by combining radio waves and a magnet with a computer.

This combination leads to the production of numerous high-quality images that detail both the brain and spinal cord.

Before the imaging takes place, patients undergo an injection of a substance known as gadolinium.

This substance is designed to spread around the cancer cells.

When it does, the cancer cells appear brighter on the images produced by the MRI scan.

With the detailed imagery offered by an MRI scan, even smaller tumors can be caught before they’ve started spreading.

As for the CT scan, also referred to as a CAT scan, this type of scan also involves the production and collection of images in the areas of the body likely to be affected by a tumor, such as a brain.

These images are taken from many different angles to ensure that nothing is missed.

These pictures are made with an x-ray machine as well as a computer.

Similar to how the gadolinium is injected into the patient during an MRI scan, a CT scan typically requires the patient to swallow some dye, though the dye can also be injected in some cases.

The result of doing so is the same with a CT scan as it is with an MRI scan.

Early screening for a possible brain tumor is absolutely essential, especially as you age.

Since there are no known causes for brain tumors and many risk factors are still in testing, the screening will likely be the only way you know if you have a brain tumor before it becomes too serious to operate or spreads to other regions of the body.

Both of these issues could drastically lower your life expectancy.

Catching cancer early provides you with the chance of ridding cancer from your body altogether.

It’s also important to understand that screening is a simple process.

All that’s necessary is for you to go through an MRI or CT scan and you’re good to go.

You’ll be provided with clear results as to the presence of a tumor and can have peace of mind that you’re not affected by one.

 

Symptoms

As a brain tumor starts to develop, your body will go through a wide range of symptoms.

These symptoms are typically mild at the onset of the tumor and grow stronger over time.

It’s important to understand that these symptoms are not wholly relegated to brain tumors and may simply be a sign of some other condition.

You should also be aware of the fact that some people with a brain tumor won’t experience any of these symptoms.

Many symptoms of these tumors are caused by the tumor applying pressure to the spinal cord.

When this occurs, the body reacts in a number of unique and different ways, all of which could assist you in identifying whether or not you’re suffering from the development of a tumor.

Symptoms of a brain tumor can usually be divided into general symptoms and symptoms that are specific to the location where the tumor has developed.

Severe headaches are extremely common, especially upon waking in the morning.

A selection of seizures may also occur. These seizures include Grand Mal, myoclonic, and sensory types.

These also range in severity.

Myoclonic seizures merely cause muscle twitches and spasms, while Grand Mal seizures can lead to a total loss of consciousness and even death.

If the tumor has been present for a notable period of time, it’s possible for memory changes to occur.

You can also have difficulty with basic walking and normal everyday tasks.

Many people who have been affected by a brain tumor suffer from a variety of sleep problems.

Additional symptoms of a standard nature include:

  • Fatigue
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Continual drowsiness

While the aforementioned are some of the more general symptoms of a brain tumor, there are also a whole host of location-specific symptoms that may affect you.

The most common of these is a headache or simple pressure that only occurs in a singular location.

This could be the sign that a tumor is causing such pressure.

In instances where the tumor is situated within the cerebellum, difficulties with balance and fine motor skills might occur.

A tumor located in the pineal gland could cause an inability to actually look upwards.

When a tumor has grown in the brain stem, specific symptoms like facial numbness, double vision, and swallowing difficulties are sure to present themselves.

If your hands or feet start showing some growth as an adult, this could be the sign of a pituitary tumor.

For some tumors within the brain stem, occipital lobe, or temporal lobe, vision changes are likely.

There is also a range of location-based symptoms that take place in different areas of the cerebrum portion of the brain.

When a tumor is located in the temporal lobe or occipital lobe, complete vision loss may take place.

When a tumor has developed in the frontal lobe of the cerebrum, common symptoms include muscle weakness, changes in judgment, paralysis, and a general sluggishness that persists even after sleeping.

Not being able to feel pressure or touch in select areas of the body, such as the arm or entire right side of the body, may indicate the presence of a tumor in the parietal or frontal lobe of the cerebrum.

If you notice any of these symptoms, make sure that you contact a doctor immediately to identify whether or not they are caused by a tumor.

 

Diagnosis and Stages

The steps necessary for a diagnosis that a person is indeed suffering from a brain tumor are very similar in nature to the steps used in standard cancer screening.

The only difference is that there are several additional tests and exams that can be administered during the diagnosis phase.

If you are suspected of having a brain tumor, your doctor will first inquire about any symptoms you’re experiencing and how severe these symptoms are.

Once you’ve answered these questions, you will need to go through a neurological examination.

These exams can include everything from checking your vision and hearing to checking your coordination and strength.

If you have issues in certain areas, this could point to where the tumor is located, if there even is one.

An MRI and CT scan are then administered.

These scans utilize different technologies for the same result of identifying if a mass of cancer cells exist.

These scans have advanced to the point where even the smaller and less aggressive tumors can be caught early before they progress and cause too much damage.

The results of these tests lead to the next step that’s taken.

If it’s indeed suspected that you are suffering from a brain tumor, you may need to take several additional scans that are focused on other areas of your body that the doctor believes cancer may have spread to.

Once all of the aforementioned tests are completed, you will be given a biopsy.

A biopsy basically involves the collecting of a sample of some of this abnormal tissue.

This is done with a needle and is able to get to even harder to reach areas of the brain.

The tissue sample is then tested to identify if the tumor is benign or malignant.

Once the results have been identified, the diagnosis is complete.

With the diagnosis comes the knowledge of the stage of cancer you’re currently at.

This staging process is essentially designed to put a label on how much the tumor has spread throughout the rest of the body.

However, this staging process is reduced in nature due to the fact that brain tumors tend to only spread throughout the rest of the brain and not the body, unlike most other tumor types.

As such, these stages are also commonly referred to as grades.

With brain tumors, there are four possible grades that you can be applied with.

The stage or grade that you’re given all depends on the size of the tumor, the spread of cancer, how much has been removed, and whether or not cancer has spread further than your brain and spinal cord.

In the first stage, the tumor growth is rather slow and the spread into nearby brain tissue is rare.

At this stage, there’s a likely chance that most or all of the tumor can be removed.

When diagnosed with stage 2, this means that the growth of the tumor is slow but that it has also spread to other tissues.

In stage 3, the tumor is quick-growing and is likely to spread to other areas of the brain.

The cells of a stage 3 tumor appear very differently than other stages.

With stage 4, the tumor grows and spreads extremely quickly, making it very difficult to eradicate.

 

Treatments and Drugs

When it comes to the treatment of brain tumors, there are a wide array of different treatment options available.

This is primarily due to the fact that tumor treatments require different approaches depending on how far the tumor has progressed and how much the symptoms are affecting you.

For the actual brain tumor, surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation therapy are the primary treatment options.

Many healthcare plans built by the doctor overseeing your case include additional care for any symptoms or side effects that you’re experiencing because of the tumor.

The treatments provided for the symptoms and side effects that the patient is suffering from are centered around improving the quality of life and diminishing these symptoms.

These treatments often include everything from medication and emotional support to several different relaxation techniques.

The drugs used for this type of treatment include basic corticosteroid drugs and anti-seizure medications.

The first of these helps to reduce swelling in the brain, thereby eliminating a number of symptoms.

The latter of these is basically designed to keep seizures in check.

As for the trifecta of surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation therapy, these can be administered differently depending on how far the tumor has grown and progressed.

At stage one, you might only require surgery to remove the tumor. If the entire tumor is removed, radiation therapy and chemotherapy are unnecessary.

However, stage 3 and 4 tumors oftentimes require all three treatments in order to provide the best chance of eliminating the body from these tumors.

Due to the blood-brain barrier within the body, chemotherapy, and radiation therapy aren’t quite as effective as when treating tumors in other areas of the body.

However, these treatments have become more refined over the years, providing you the best chance of getting rid of your brain tumor once and for all.

Surgery for a brain tumor oftentimes involves a procedure known as cortical mapping.

This type of mapping is designed to keep the most important aspects of your brain unaffected, such as the ones that control language, motor, and sensory skills.

With radiation therapy, there are basically six different techniques that you can be administered with.

The type of technique that’s used basically all depends on the location of the brain tumor and which one the surgeon believes will offer the best results.

When it comes to chemotherapy, the tricky aspect of this treatment is that it oftentimes has issues getting past the blood-brain barrier.

Thankfully, a number of chemotherapy drugs are more effective at this than others.

These drugs include carmustine, temozolomide, lomustine, procarbazine, and vincristine.

The last three of these are designed specifically to be used in tandem during radiation therapy for a stage 3 oligodendroglioma.

When receiving treatment, patients will be monitored every couple of months to ensure that the treatment is going well.

Unfortunately, in some cases, the tumor will not be able to be controlled or cured.

In this event, the doctor simply attempts to keep the patient free from pain.

 

Coping and Support

No matter what stage the tumor is at, a brain tumor diagnosis is always going to be difficult to cope with, especially if you attempt to do so on your own.

There are many ways to cope, primarily because everyone does so differently.

However, there are some basic methods of coping that have proved effective.

First, you must cope with your feelings on the matter.

You may feel as though everything is out of control after you’ve been diagnosed with a brain tumor.

The immediate aftermath of such a diagnosis typically leads people to experience the whole gamut of emotions.

It’s important for you to understand that this is all-natural.

Counseling and individual therapy can help greatly with these emotions.

Even after you find a way to cope with your feelings, you must then cope with the diagnosis you’ve been provided with.

You should know that there are many brain tumor types and that a good amount of them are actually curable.

Most of the others can be controlled for many years to boost your life expectancy more than you might believe immediately after receiving the diagnosis.

However, some tumors can’t be cured or controlled.

If this is the case, you will need to find a way to cope with this diagnosis.

No matter the diagnosis, speaking with your cancer specialist will provide you with everything you should know about what to expect in the future, which should help to put your mind at ease.

Next, it’s time to help yourself by getting all of the information there is to know about the type of brain tumor that you’ve been diagnosed with.

In essence, you need to find the most effective “battle strategy”.

You should make a list of questions to ask your doctor about both the tumor and any available treatments.

Cancer treatments tend to have some relatively severe side effects, so make sure to weigh carefully any treatment decision with your doctor.

Most of these side effects can be treated by the doctor in question so that they don’t affect you that much.

The most important aspect of coping with a brain tumor is to seek support from your friends and family.

It might not seem as though you would be able to cope with doing so, as the initial reactions of everyone around you and the act of telling someone about such a life-altering event can seem terrifying.

However, telling those closest to you about the diagnosis can make all other coping easier.

You’ll have the trust and loving support of your friends and family, which will, more than anything, help you get through the worst emotions.

In the event that you simply can’t tell family or friends, a nurse specialist can provide much of the same support.

A cancer support group is also a very effective remedy for much of your troubles.

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