It's not easy to recognize the first signs of brain cancer.
Its symptoms can be as obvious as a major seizure or as subtle as a newfound problem with concentration.
Often, the only thing harder than spotting its symptoms is taking action even if we suspect a problem.
There are plenty of reasons we tell ourselves that our symptoms aren't worth getting checked out. It's a hassle, sometimes an expensive one, combined with the feeling that it couldn't happen to us. There's some fear there, too, about the prospect of learning you have a tumor.
It's an understandable reaction: Brain cancer is frightening and pursuing a potential diagnosis can take courage. But, as with many types of cancer, more effective treatment is available if it's diagnosed early.
Unfortunately, most people with a brain tumor learn about their condition only when the tumor is large enough to cause major problems.
Knowing when and how to talk to your doctor about symptoms is the first step, and one that could save your life.
Symptoms of Brain Cancer
We often think of the brain as one big mass of thinking power, but really, it's like a central control hub with each part controlling its own domain.
Moving from the bottom, the brain stem is like our autopilot; it guides digestion, breathing and everything else that we do without thinking. Above that, the cerebellum coordinates our muscles, while the two-hemisphere cerebrum, the largest part of the brain, controls the rest.
The symptoms of a brain tumor often depend on which part of the brain it arises in.
A tumor on the optic nerve, for example, can lead to double vision or blurriness. A tumor in the cerebrum can cause numbness or weakness, especially on one side, or problems with balance or movement. A growth in the front part of the brain, the cerebrum, can cause problems with personality and language.
There are also a set of general symptoms that include:
- Drowsiness or even coma
- Just feeling off or not quite right
But because these general symptoms are so, well, general, there's no reason to assume that having them means you have brain cancer. For example, more than 90 percent of first seizures are caused by something other than a brain tumor, according to the American Cancer Society.
Not counting tumors that arise elsewhere and spread to the brain, there are only about 24,000 cases of brain or spinal cancer diagnosed each year in the United States. It's responsible for only about one or two percent of all cancers.
You should see your doctor if these symptoms are unexplained, unusual and persist for a matter of weeks. That's a common theme among cancer symptoms; problems from other causes tend to go away over time while cancer symptoms do not.
The single most common way brain cancer is diagnosed is a seizure that leads to an emergency department visit and a brain scan.
But it is also among the deadliest. Only an average of about one-third of patients diagnosed with a malignant brain tumor survive for five years.
Being tested for brain cancer requires high-resolution pictures of the brain, usually through a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) or computed tomography (CT) scan. About 80 percent of brain tumors are benign, meaning they are unlikely to grow quickly and spread, though even benign tumors can cause problems depending on where they're located.
Treatments for Brain Cancer
Surgery to remove the tumor is often the preferred option because it can lead to a total cure. Generally, slow-growing tumors closest to the surface of the brain are the best candidates for surgery.
Unfortunately, for those who have an aggressive glioblastoma, the single most common type of brain tumor, surgery cannot remove every tumor cell and the tumor tends to come back within months or a few years.
This is because glioblastomas arise from astrocytes, a type of brain cell with root-like tendrils that snake away from the cell. This makes the tumors difficult to remove in their entirety.
In other parts of the body, a surgeon can remove some healthy tissue to ensure they've removed all the tumor cells. In the brain, though, that is clearly a riskier proposition.
For tumors that can't be removed surgically, another tool exists. It's called the Gamma Knife, and it involves the use of precisely targeted radiation to destroy hard-to-reach tumors while leaving surrounding tissue intact. It takes only about an hour and patients can typically resume their regular activity that same day.
AdventHealth uses this tool in several facilities across the country on brain and spine cancers.
Chemotherapy drugs are also often used in conjunction with surgery and radiation, though only certain medications can pass through the blood-brain barrier and reach brain tumors.
Finally, AdventHealth also offers a series of integrative treatments for cancer. That means we combine the most advanced procedures and technology with a whole-body approach that takes your physical, emotional and spiritual health into account.
Our team includes dietitians to make nutrition an ally in your fight, counselors to help you and your caregivers cope with the emotional side effects of cancer and art and music therapy to tap into your creative side as an outlet for expression and healing.
Overcoming Brain Cancer Takes a Team
When it comes to a cause, brain cancer still leaves a lot unanswered. Aside from a few rare genetic conditions or exposure to chemical or radiation, doctors do not know what causes brain cancer. The only clear risk factor for brain cancer is increasing age.
This makes it difficult to predict who is likeliest to develop a brain tumor, but it is also a reminder that those who get a brain tumor almost certainly didn't do anything to cause it.
If you or a loved one are diagnosed with brain cancer, you'll want to find a team that has expertise not just in cancer care, but in the latest treatments and research. AdventHealth offers comprehensive care, including the possibility of clinical trials, that help many people restore a life of whole health once again.
For more information on cancer care, visit our website.