Published December 06, 2011
Understanding brain cancer can feel like an impossible challenge. The causes are unclear, no two diagnoses are the same, and the treatment is intimidating. To help you get a clear understanding, here is a guide to the basics of brain cancer:
The body continuously loses and reforms cells as a natural part of staying healthy. When you cut your skin, for example your body has to create new skin cells to replace what has been lost. However, cells begin to reproduce at an abnormally fast rate, they produce a tumor, which can be benign, or noncancerous. The tumor may also turn out to be malignant, or cancerous. Whether tumors are benign or malignant, they can pressure nearby tissue and impair functioning. According to the National Institutes for Health, brain cancer can be classified as either primary or metastatic. Primary brain cancer means the tumor originated in the brain, whereas metastatic brain cancer cells developed elsewhere in the body and spread to the brain.
There is no known, definitive cause for brain cancer. For a few people, the cancer can stem from a particular genetic disease such as neurofibromatosis or tuberous sclerosis. Brain cancer can also result from long-term exposure to carcinogenic chemicals — substances believed to cause cancer, including radioactive materials and environmental pollutants. Recent research has also pointed to head seizures and injuries as a potential cause. For the most part, however, if someone is diagnosed with cancer, it is impossible to pinpoint the exact cause.
Symptoms and diagnosis
While there are a number of common symptoms associated with brain cancer, no two diagnoses are the same. One patient may have headaches and vomiting and another may feel tingling in his limbs. The symptoms of brain cancer include impairments to hearing, vision or motor control, nausea, vomiting and headaches that are typically worse in the morning. Additional symptoms also include issues with thinking and memory, muscle spasms, tingling or numbness in the arms and legs. After a primary health and neurological exam, doctors utilize a battery of tests to diagnose brain cancer. These diagnostic tools can include a CT scan, MRI, X-ray and a spinal tap. If the doctors find a tumor, they will perform a biopsy by taking a sample of the tumor to determine whether it is malignant or benign.
There are various paths for treating brain cancer, and a treatment program is tailored to every individual patient’s needs. For most patients, treatment will include surgery to remove the tumor. The surgeons will make every effort to remove the entire tumor in order to make sure the cancerous cells do not continue to reproduce. If the whole tumor cannot be removed, or if surgery is not advisable, radiation therapy is an another treatment option. Radiation therapy damages the abnormal cells, allowing the nearby healthy cells to repair the area. Chemotherapy is a similar form of treatment which uses a series of drugs to attack the tumor cells. Chemotherapy is usually a secondary treatment, although it is occasionally used to replace radiation therapy in children.