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Education Resources

Brain Cancer

The brain and spinal cord together make up the central nervous system (CNS). When cells within the brain begin to grow abnormally, it can result in a brain tumor, which can either be benign (non-cancerous) or malignant (cancerous).

Unlike cancers that start in other parts of the body, brain or spinal cord tumors rarely spread to distant organs. However, they can travel to other parts within the brain, causing damage to healthy tissue. Because of this, even benign tumors often need to be removed or destroyed.

Signs and Symptoms of Brain Tumors

There are a lot of potential signs and symptoms of brain tumors, which are dependent on:

  • Where the tumor forms in the brain or spinal cord
  • The size of the tumor
  • What the affected part of the brain controls

Signs and symptoms of brain cancer can either be general or specific. General symptoms of brain cancer are caused when the tumor is putting pressure on the brain or spinal cord. Specific symptoms are caused when a specific part of the brain is not working well because of the tumor.

General symptoms of brain cancer may include:

  • Extreme drowsiness and fatigue
  • Trouble falling or staying asleep
  • Headaches can be severe or worsen with activity or during early morning hours
  • Seizures
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Memory problems
  • Sudden inability to walk or perform daily activities

While certain symptoms like drowsiness, nausea, and fatigue could be related to conditions other than brain cancer, they shouldn’t be ignored. If you experience them in combination together or with any of the other symptoms listed, schedule an appointment with your physician.

Specific symptoms of brain cancer may include:

  • Pressure or aching in the head area
  • Altered perception of touch or pressure; such as confusion with right and left sides of the body
  • Loss of balance or fine motor skills
  • Unexplained changes in memory, speech, hearing, or emotional state
  • Vision changes such as double vision or partial loss of vision
  • Extreme changes in judgment, motivation, or sluggishness
  • Difficulty swallowing, along with weakness or numbness in the face
  • Muscle weakness or paralysis
  • New growths in hands and/or feet
  • Unexpected lactation (secretion of breast milk) or changes in menstrual periods, in women

Causes, Risk Factors, and Prevention of Brain Cancer

Primary brain tumors begin in the brain itself or in surrounding tissues, such as the brain-covering membranes (meninges), cranial nerves, pineal gland, or pituitary gland. When normal cells acquire errors (mutations) in their DNA, they grow and divide at increased rates. The result is a mass of abnormal cells, thus forming a tumor.

Most brain tumors have no clear cause. Still, a few factors can raise the risk. These may include:

  • Radiation exposure. Previous treatment to the brain or head with radiation, including tests such as x-rays or CT scans could possibly increase the risk for a brain tumor.
  • Family history. A small percentage (about 5%) of brain tumors may be linked to hereditary genetic factors or conditions, including Von Hippel-Lindau disease, Li-Fraumeni syndrome, Tuberous sclerosis, and Neurofibromatosis (NF1 and NF2).
  • Compromised immune system. Exposure to infections, viruses, and allergens can increase the risk of developing lymphomas of the brain.

Cancer Prevention

At this time, there are no known lifestyle-related or environmental risk factors other than radiation exposure for brain cancer. With that said, adjusting your lifestyle to include healthier choices (i.e. quitting drinking and smoking) can help reduce the risk of many other cancers in adults, including lung and breast cancers.