“Brain cancer” is one of the most worrisome diagnoses a person can receive in a doctor’s office, but technological advances continue to arm medical providers with tools for improving patient outcomes.
Types of brain tumors
There are two general categories of brain cancer. In the most common case, cancer that develops somewhere else in the body spreads to the brain. In the other case, a tumor develops directly in the brain.
“I tend to reserve the word cancer for a malignant cancer of the body that spreads to the brain,” said Dr. Benjamin Lawler, a Marshfield Clinic neuro-oncologist. “Meanwhile, if we’re talking about a tumor that originates in the brain, I, and most other neuro-oncologists, tend to just call those brain tumors or primary brain tumors.”
Lawler said the majority of tumors that go to the brain spread there from lung or breast cancer. The most common signs that you have any kind of brain tumor are seizures, progressive loss of strength or sensation on one side of the body, loss of speech capabilities, or loss of vision on the same side of each eye.
Headaches often are listed as a sign of a brain tumor, but Lawler said by the time a person is experiencing headaches due to a tumor, they’ve likely had other symptoms for some time.
A tumor that is benign, meaning non-cancerous, can present with the same symptoms as one that is cancerous.
What raises your risk?
One of the only known risk factors for developing a primary brain tumor is, ironically, if you received radiation therapy to the head area years or even decades in your past. Even in that case, your risk of developing a primary brain tumor rises only very slightly.
“Radiation, 20-30 years later, can lead to multiple tumors in the lining of the brain or in the brain itself,” Lawler said.
Detection and treatment
MRIs are the best test to detect tumors in the brain. From there, if it is determined a person has a primary brain tumor, the next step is to remove as much of it as possible via surgery.
“Even if it’s a perfect surgery and you can’t see any of the tumor left, there are always going to be tumor cells left behind,” Lawler said. “With the most common brain tumor, following surgery we typically give people a six-week course of radiation and low-dose oral chemotherapy for six weeks.”
Following that six-week period, low-dose oral chemotherapy is taken by the patient five days a month for up to a year.
A recent innovation in the fight against brain cancer is a technology called Optune, which is a wearable device that people place on their heads 24 hours a day. Optune sends a low-voltage alternating current through the head that disrupts DNA’s ability to form new DNA, which is how every tumor grows. Lawler said this device may be even more important than chemotherapy for those with certain types of brain tumors.
For smaller, slow-growing tumors in the brain, a technology called the Gamma Knife is a possible treatment.
“The Gamma Knife gives the patient 192 very small radiation treatments all at once instead of larger beams spread over several weeks,” Lawler said. “These are small beams of radiation the exact size of the tumor that target the tumor and minimize exposure for the rest of the brain.”
If you have any concerns about symptoms you are having, contact your primary care provider.