Brain cancer is a disease of the brain where cancer cells (malignant) grow in the brain tissue. Cancer cells grow to form a mass of cancer tissue (tumor) that interferes with brain tissue functions such as muscle control, sensation, memory, and other normal body functions. Tumors composed of cancer cells are called malignant tumors, and those composed of noncancerous cells are called benign tumors. Cancer cells that develop from brain tissue are called primary brain tumors. Statistics suggest that brain cancer is not rare and is likely to develop in about 20,000 people per year.
There are two main types of brain cancer. Primary brain cancer starts in the brain. Metastatic brain cancer starts somewhere else in the body and moves to the brain. Brain tumors can be benign, with no cancer cells, or malignant, with cancer cells that grow quickly.
Although such growths are popularly called brain tumors, not all brain tumors are cancer. Cancer is a term reserved for malignant tumors.
Malignant tumors grow and spread aggressively, overpowering healthy cells by taking their space, blood, and nutrients. (Like all cells of the body, tumor cells need blood and nutrients to survive.)
The brain is made up of many different types of cells.
Some brain cancers occur when one type of cell transforms from its normal characteristics. Once transformed, the cells grow and multiply in abnormal ways.
As these abnormal cells grow, they become a mass, or tumor.
Causes and Risk Factors
Aside from a known association with exposure to vinyl chloride, there are no known chemical or environmental agents that lead to the development of brain tumors. Genetic mutations and deletions of tumor suppressor genes (i.e., genes that suppress the development of malignant cells) increase the risk for some types of brain cancer.
The signs and symptoms of a brain tumor vary greatly and depend on the brain tumor’s size, location and rate of growth.
Depending on the location and size of the tumor, symptoms experienced by each patient may vary. Most of the common symptoms are due to increased intracranial pressure as the growing tumor affects surrounding structures:
Frequent headaches (reported by 50% of patients)
Nausea and/or vomiting
Personality or cognitive changes
Treatment for brain cancer depends on the age of the patient, the stage of the disease, the type and location of the tumor, and whether the cancer is a primary tumor or brain metastases. The treatment plan is developed by the oncology team and the patient. Treatment involves any combination of surgery, radiation, and chemotherapy. Some tumors require several different surgical procedures, and some can be treated with radiation alone.
Before treatment begins, most patients are given steroids, drugs that relieve swelling or edema. Your may receive anticonvulsant medicine to prevent or control seizures. If hydrocephalus is present, you may need a shunt to drain cerebrospinal fluid. A shunt is a long, thin tube placed in a ventricle of the brain and then threaded under the skin to another part of the body, usually the abdomen. It works like a drainpipe. Excess fluid is carried away from the brain and is absorbed in the abdomen. In some cases, the fluid is drained into the heart.