A brain or spinal cord tumor occurs when abnormal cells grow and form a mass or a lump. The tumor may be benign (not cancerous) or malignant (cancerous), but both types can be serious and may need urgent treatment.
According to data from the International Agency for Research on Cancer and the World Cancer Fund Research International, global numbers of brain tumors are not as common as many other cancers. Globally, there were 260,000 new cases of brain and nervous system cancers around the world in 2012. However, the mortality rate for brain cancers is higher in comparison to the number of new cases each year.
- There are about 130 different types of brain tumors. They are usually named after the type of cell they develop from. They can also be named after the area of the brain they are growing into
- It is the 22nd most common cancer worldwide, but it ranks 10th for mortality
- Brain tumors are the third main cause of cancer death in adults within the 20-39 age bracket.
- This year, an estimated 23,890 adults (13,590 men and 10,300 women) and 3,540 children under the age of 15 in the US, will be diagnosed with primary cancerous tumors of the brain and spinal cord.
- The average survival rate for all malignant brain tumor patients is 33.8% for men and 36.4% for women
- For the most common form of primary malignant brain tumors, glioblastoma multiforme, has a five-year relative survival rate of just 5.6%
- The median age at diagnosis for all primary brain tumors is 59 years
- Brain tumors are a leading cause of tumor cancer deaths in children:
- In the US more than 28,000 children (0-19 years of age) are estimated to be living with a brain tumor
- An estimated 3,720 new cases of childhood (0 – 14) brain and CNS tumors are expected to be diagnosed in 2019 in the US
- The average survival rate for all primary child (0-19 years of age) malignant brain tumors is 74.1%
Please note reported statistics do vary slightly from country to country and year to year
Brain tumors can be either primary or secondary. Primary tumors start in the brain and are unlikely to spread. Secondary tumors have spread to the brain from somewhere else in the body through the bloodstream.
If you are diagnosed with a brain tumor it can be benign, malignant or slow growing. However, all brain tumors, including non-cancerous, should be monitored closely by your medical team - some benign tumors can develop into a malignant tumor. It is called malignant transformation or progression to malignancy.
Some people are at a higher risk than others:
- Family history – in rare cases, a fault in the genes, usually passed down from one parent, can increase the risk of developing a brain tumor. For example, some people have a genetic condition called neurofibromatosis which can lead to tumors of the neurons
- Radiation Therapy – in rare cases, people who have had radiation therapy to the head, particularly to treat childhood leukaemia may be at an increased risk of developing a tumor
- People with HIV or AIDS have around double the risk of being diagnosed with a brain tumor compared to the general population. This may be related to lowered immunity.
- Being overweight or obese increases the risk of some types of brain cancer. Obesity means being very overweight with a body mass index (BMI) of 30 or higher. And being overweight is a BMI of between 25 and 30.
Many people diagnosed with a brain or spinal cord tumor first seek medical attention because they are feeling unwell - early symptoms can be thought to be something else. Some brain tumors grow slowly and symptoms develop gradually, so you may not be aware that anything is wrong at first. In other cases, symptoms appear suddenly.
General symptoms may be caused by increased pressure in the skull. In approximately 30-40% of cases the first warning sign of a brain tumor is a seizure. Pressure can build up because the tumor itself is taking up too much space or because it is blocking the flow of the cerebrospinal fluid around the brain.
Because the cancer is relatively rare there is no official screening programme – so it’s vital people watch out for the related symptoms.
- Headaches – often worse when you wake up.
- Nausea and vomiting – often worse in the morning or after changing position.
- Confusion and irritability.
- Blurred or double vision.
- Seizures (fits) – can be obvious, involving a loss of consciousness, or more subtle, such as ‘zoning out’.
- Weakness in parts of the body.
- Drowsiness – a later symptom
- Impaired speech
- Difficulties when swallowing
- In infants, an increase in head size
- Poor body coordination
- Behavioral and mood changes
- Difficulties with balance
- Tingling sensations and/or weakness in the arms or legs
Diagnosing a brain tumor
The doctor will ask you about your symptoms and give you a physical examination to assess your nervous system to check how different parts of the brain and body are working, including your speech, hearing, vision and movement.
You may then be sent for an MRI and/or CT scan. There are also other tests doctors can use that assess brain function such as the chemical make-up, message pathways and blood flow. Other more invasive tests may be required to ascertain a diagnosis including the removal and analysis of cerebrospinal fluid, tissue and tumor cells to look for gene changes.
If you are diagnosed with a brain tumor, your treatment will depend on several factors such as size, type, and grade of the tumor, whether the tumor is putting pressure on vital parts of the brain and whether the tumor has spread to other parts of the body.
Benign brain tumor (non-cancerous)
Benign (non-cancerous) brain tumors can usually be successfully removed with surgery and don't usually grow back. It often depends on whether the surgeon can safely remove all of the tumor. If there's some left, if can either be monitored with scans or treated with radiotherapy.
Malignant brain tumor (brain cancer)
Surgery - the will surgeon aim to remove as much of brain tumor as possible and try to stop it coming back. A small section of skull is removed and the tumor is cut out before the piece of skull is fixed back in place.
Your medical team may also use one or more of the following treatments to control the cancer cells to reduce the chance of the tumor growing back:
Radiotherapy - You might have radiotherapy on its own, or after surgery. You usually have a type of radiotherapy called external beam radiotherapy. For a small brain tumor, you may have stereotactic or radiosurgery. It targets high doses of radiation to a small area.
Chemotherapy - You might have it after surgery to lower the chances of the tumor coming back, or to treat a tumor that has returned. You may have chemotherapy on its own or with radiotherapy.
If you’ve been affected by a brain tumor cancer, or any other type of cancer, join the Facebook Chemotherapy Support group. You’ll find thousands of people who are fighting cancer right now, and happy to offer advice and give support.
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