Brain tumors (along with those in the central nervous system, also considered part of the same medical specialty) can be benign or malignant. The term “brain cancer” refers to those that are malignant; primary brain cancer describes cancer that has started in the brain, whereas the term “metastatic brain cancer” describes cancer that started elsewhere and has spread to the brain. About 23,000 new cases of primary brain cancer are diagnosed every year in the United States, approximately 90% in adults.
Symptoms of Brain Cancer
Because the brain controls many different parts of the body, symptoms caused by a tumor in the brain vary widely from one person to another. Common symptoms that should be checked out by your doctor include:
- Unusual headaches, particularly in the morning and/or that ease after vomiting
- Frequent nausea and vomiting
- Loss of appetite
- Vision, hearing, and speech problems
- Loss of balance and trouble walking
- Lack of energy, fatigue, daytime sleepiness
- Changes in personality, mood, ability to focus, or behavior
Spinal Cord Tumors
- Back pain or pain that spreads from the back towards the arms or legs
- A change in bowel habits or difficulty with urination
- Weakness in the legs
- Trouble walking
Risk Factors for Brain Cancer
There are numerous different types of brain and spinal cord tumors, and not much information about their causes. Some rare hereditary syndromes are linked with a higher risk for these cancers, as is having the Epstein-Barr virus and/or HIV. Also, exposure to vinyl chloride (used in the manufacturing of some plastics) is associated with a higher risk of some types of brain cancer.
Diagnosis and Treatment
If brain or spinal cord cancer is suspected, a biopsy will be needed to make a firm diagnosis. However, there are other tests that are often used to help rule out other causes for symptoms and to pinpoint the location of the suspected tumor. These tests include:
- Neurological exam
- Visual field exam
- Imaging tests, including CT Scan, MRI, SPECT scan and PET scan
- Angiogram, which involves injection of a dye that makes certain parts of the brain more visible under x-ray
If these preliminary tests indicate the presence of a tumor, a biopsy can determine whether or not the tumor is cancerous. Tissue samples for biopsy can be obtained via:
- Stereotactic biopsy, required for tumors located in hard-to-reach parts of the brain, using a 3-D scanning device to find the tumor and guide the needle, which is inserted through a small incision in the scalp.
- Open biopsy, which involves using a traditional surgical approach to taking a tissue sample for testing.