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Brain Tumors 


Brain tumors are a rare condition that results when cells grow abnormally and form a mass.  Brain tumors may originate in the brain or spread from cancer in another part of the body.  There are many different types of brain tumors.  Brain tumors can directly destroy or indirectly damage brain cells.  The affects of a brain tumor may be temporary or permanent.  Brain tumors may be treated with surgery, radiation therapy, chemotherapy, biological therapies, or a combination of treatments.

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Your brain is located inside of your skull.  It is the control center of your body.  Your brain controls the way you think, behave, feel, and move your body.  Your brain communicates with the nerves in your body for functions you can control, such as talking or moving your arms and legs.  Your brain also controls the life-sustaining functions that you cannot control and that happen automatically, including your heartbeat, body temperature, blood pressure, and body metabolism.

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Brain tumors result when the cells in the brain grow abnormally and form a mass.  Primary brain tumors originate in the brain.  They may develop in brain cells, cells insulating nerves, glands, or the meninges, the membranes that cover the brain.  The cause of primary brain tumors is unknown.  Primary brain tumors may be benign or malignant. 

Benign brain tumors are not cancerous, but they may be life threatening if they are located in a vital area of the brain or produce a large amount of swelling.  Primary brain tumors are usually slow growing and do not spread.  Malignant brain tumors are life threatening.  Malignant brain tumors may be referred to as brain cancer.  Malignant brain tumors can be fast growing and can spread to other parts of the body.

Metastatic brain tumors result from cancer that spreads from another part of the body to the brain.  Multiple tumors are common.  Lung, breast, kidney, colon, and melanoma skin cancer most frequently spread to the brain.

There are many different types of brain tumors.  Brain tumors may be confined to a small area in the brain or spread throughout the brain.  Brain tumors can directly destroy or indirectly damage brain cells.  Brain tumors can compress brain cells and tissue.  They can contribute to brain swelling and increased pressure in the brain.  The effects of a brain tumor may be temporary or permanent.  Brain tumors can result in functional impairments, disability, or death.

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Brain tumors may cause a variety of different symptoms based on their size and location.  Some brain tumors may not have symptoms until they are very large.  Symptoms may develop quickly or slowly.  Common symptoms include headaches, seizures, changes in thinking, emotional changes, and changes in the way your body moves, such as weakness. 
Headaches may be constant and may wake you from sleep.  You may not be able to think as well as you did before.  You may be confused.  Your behavior, moods, and personality may change.  Your ability to see, smell, breathe, swallow, hear, or talk may change.  You may have problems moving your body including poor coordination, clumsiness, tremors, or falling.  You may lack sensation in parts of your body.  You may feel tired or weak.  Brain tumors may cause weight gain and obesity.  Females may stop menstruating. 

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A doctor can begin to diagnose a brain tumor by reviewing your medical history and conducting a physical examination, neurological examination, and some tests.  Your blood, urine, vision, or hearing may be tested.  Imaging scans may be used to detect a tumor in the brain.  Common imaging tests include computed tomography (CT) scans and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans.  These imaging tests are painless, but require that you remain motionless while the pictures are taken.  An electroencephalogram (EEG) may be used to measure your brain wave activity.  A biopsy may be used to determine the exact type of tumor and if cancer cells are present.  A biopsy is a procedure that obtains tissue or fluid from the brain or spinal cord for examination. 
If you have a brain tumor, your doctor will assign your tumor a classification stage based on the results of all of your tests.  Staging describes the tumor and its extension throughout the brain and body.  Brain cancer rarely spreads from its original site to other parts of the body.  Cancer that spreads is termed metastasized cancer.  Staging is helpful for treatment planning and recovery prediction. 
There is more than one type of staging system for brain tumors and you should make sure that you and your doctor are referring to the same one.  Generally, lower numbers in a classification system indicate a less serious tumor, and higher numbers indicate a more serious tumor.  The stages may be subdivided into classifications that use letters and numbers.

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Brachytherapy is used to destroy cancer cells from an internal source of radiation.  Brachytherapy uses a radioactive source, referred to as a “seed.”  Interstitial brachytherapy involves implanting radioactive seeds into or near a cancer tumor.  The seeds may be left in place permanently or temporarily.  Radiation from internally placed radioactive seeds disrupts the growth of cancer cells.  Brachytherapy spares as many healthy cells as possible because it directs radiation to only a specific area.

Chemotherapy is another method for treating brain tumors.  Chemotherapy uses special medications to kill tumor cells.  Chemotherapy is a primary treatment for children with brain tumors to delay radiation treatments.  In adults, chemotherapy may be used as an adjunct to other therapies.  It is also used to help treat recurrent brain tumors.

Chemotherapy may be delivered in several different ways.  Most chemotherapy is given by injection.  Implanted pumps or catheters may be used to deliver a continuous dose.  After a brain tumor is removed, polymer wafer implants may be placed in the cavity to deliver chemotherapy.  The wafers eventually dissolve.

Biological therapies are used to change the biological behavior of a cell or the biological environment that a cell is in to make it difficult for tumor cells to grow.  There are a variety of biological therapies that act in different ways.  Some of the ways that biological therapies work are to enhance the immune system, block signals that promote tumor growth, or block the changes that take place in healthy cells that make them cancerous.  Gene therapy is used to help repair or replace abnormal genes that cause cancer tumors.

The effects of a brain tumor may be temporary or permanent.  Brain tumors can result in functional impairments or disability.  Some people participate in rehabilitation therapies after experiencing a brain tumor to regain skills and improve their functional independence.  Rehabilitation should be provided by a facility with the special skills and expertise to treat people with brain injuries.

The experience of a brain tumor, brain injury, cancer, and treatments may be a very emotional experience for you and your loved ones.  It is important to embrace positive sources of support.  Some people find comfort in their families, friends, co-workers, counselors, and faith.  Cancer support groups are a helpful resource where you can receive support, information, and understanding from people with similar experiences.  Ask your doctor for support groups near you.

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You should contact your doctor if you experience the symptoms of a brain tumor.  Tumors that are diagnosed and treated early are associated with the best outcomes.

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Am I at Risk

Brain tumors are a rare condition.  The cause of primary brain tumors is unknown.  Certain inherited conditions, including neurofibromatosis, Von Hippel-Lindau Syndrome, Li-Fraumeni Syndrome, and Turcot’s Syndrome, are associated with an increased risk of brain tumors.  Head injuries, hormone replacement therapy, radiation exposure, and exposure to certain chemicals may increase the risk of brain tumors.

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In some cases, cancerous brain tumors may spread to other parts of the body.  Brain cancer that has been treated may come back.  Brain tumors may cause seizures.  Both benign and malignant tumors may be life threatening because of the size and position of the tumor in the brain.  Brain tumors can cause brain swelling and tissue compression that may result in functional impairment, disability, or death.

Some people with brain tumors develop an increase in intracranial pressure and need a shunt to help drain cerebral spinal fluid to relieve the pressure and symptoms.  Increased intracranial pressure can result from brain swelling.  A shunt is a thin tube that drains excess fluids from the brain into the body.

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Researchers are perfecting ways to treat the delicate tissues in the brain.  They are studying new treatment methods as well as treatment combinations with the goal of improving tumor treatment and reducing side effects.

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This information is intended for educational and informational purposes only. It should not be used in place of an individual consultation or examination or replace the advice of your health care professional and should not be relied upon to determine diagnosis or course of treatment.

The iHealthSpot patient education library was written collaboratively by the iHealthSpot editorial team which includes Senior Medical Authors Dr. Mary Car-Blanchard, OTD/OTR/L and Valerie K. Clark, and the following editorial advisors: Steve Meadows, MD, Ernie F. Soto, DDS, Ronald J. Glatzer, MD, Jonathan Rosenberg, MD, Christopher M. Nolte, MD, David Applebaum, MD, Jonathan M. Tarrash, MD, and Paula Soto, RN/BSN. This content complies with the HONcode standard for trustworthy health information. The library commenced development on September 1, 2005 with the latest update/addition on April 13th, 2016. For information on iHealthSpot’s other services including medical website design, visit www.iHealthSpot.com.