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What Is Brain Cancer?

Brain cancer is a malignant cell growth in the brain. The cancer can be primary (75%), meaning that it started in the brain, or secondary (25%), meaning that it spread from another part of the body to the brain. About 40% of brain cancers start from glial cells and are named gliomas. Gliomas include astrocytomas, glioblastomas, oligodendrogliomas, ependymomas, and medulloblastomas. The most common secondary cancers spread from cancers of the breast, lung, kidney, colon, and skin (melanoma).

Primary brain tumors can affect anyone but are more common in children younger than 15 and in middle-aged adults. Secondary brain tumors are more common in adults.

Brain cancer cannot be prevented. Most primary brain tumors, if found early, can be cured.

What Causes Brain Cancer?

The cause of primary brain tumors is unknown.

What Are the Symptoms of Brain Cancer?

Headaches and seizures are the most common symptoms. Headaches usually occur in early morning, sometimes waking people up, and worsen with coughing or sneezing. The growing tumor pressing up against the skull causes the headaches. Other symptoms depend on the location of the tumor, but can include behavior changes, confusion, and trouble with speech, memory, or concentration.

How Is Brain Cancer Diagnosed?

Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) is usually used to find the cancer. Computed tomography (CT) can also be used. The only way to prove the diagnosis is to take a tissue sample from the tumor and study it under the microscope. Taking this sample can be done either by a biopsy or at surgery, if the whole tumor is to be removed.

How Is Brain Cancer Treated?

Primary brain tumors are usually removed. Depending on the tumor type and location, surgery gives the best chance for a cure if the whole tumor can be removed. Surgery also allows diagnosis of the type of cancer and relieves pressure in the brain.

Radiation therapy, another treatment method, is performed by specialists (radiation oncologists) and is usually used for tumors that cannot be removed (or removed completely), or after surgery for any brain cancer.

Chemotherapy is not often used for primary brain tumors.

An antiseizure medicine is often used before and after surgery. For swelling in the brain, the health care provider may prescribe an anti-inflammatory steroid (dexamethasone).

DOs and DON’Ts in Managing Brain Cancer:

  • DO have a team of doctors help with your care: a neurosurgeon (a doctor specializing in surgery of the brain and spinal cord), neuro-oncologist (a doctor specializing in cancers of the nervous system), radiation oncologist (a doctor specializing in radiation treatment of cancer), and your primary care health care provider.
  • DO call your health care provider if you have new headaches or seizures.
  • DO call your health care provider if you need a referral to a specialist.
  • DON’T be afraid to ask for second opinions.
  • DON’T miss follow-up appointments. Your health care provider may repeat CT or MRI and blood tests to check for cancer and to keep your seizure medicine at the right dose.

Contact the following sources:

  • American Cancer Society
    Tel: (800) ACS-2345 (227-2345)
  • National Cancer Institute (NCI)
    Tel: (800) 4-CANCER (422-6237)
  • American Brain Tumor Association
    Tel: (800) 886-2282

Copyright © 2016 by Saunders, an imprint of Elsevier, Inc.

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