Thumbnail image of: Brain, Cross Section: Illustration
Thumbnail image of: Brain, Side View: Illustration

Brain Cancer

What is brain cancer?

A brain tumor is a growth of abnormal cells in the brain. Not all brain tumors are caused by cancer. Brain cancer is a tumor that is caused by cancer cells. This kind of brain tumor is called malignant. There are several types of brain cancers. Tumors without cancer cells are called benign. Some types of tumors grow very slowly, while other types of tumors grow very fast.

The sooner cancer is found and treated, the better your chances for recovery. However, even advanced cancer can usually be treated. Treatment may slow or stop the growth of the cancer and ease symptoms for a time. Ask your healthcare provider what you can expect with the type of cancer that you have.

What is the cause?

The cause of brain cancer is not known. One known risk factor is being exposed to radiation, such as being treated with radiation for other types of cancer. Some kinds of brain tumors run in families.

What are the symptoms?

Symptoms of brain cancer may come on slowly, or they may start quickly. Pressure in your skull can be caused by a tumor, swelling, or a buildup of blood and fluids in some parts of your brain. Symptoms can be different depending on where the tumor is in your brain. Different parts of the brain control different parts of the body. Symptoms may include:

  • Seizures
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Problems with vision, hearing, smell, taste, or touch
  • Trouble thinking or speaking clearly
  • Drowsiness
  • Weakness or trouble moving one or both sides of your body
  • Dizziness or loss of balance
  • Mood swings and personality changes

About half of the people who have brain cancer will have headaches as a symptom of the cancer. The headaches may be worse in the morning or wake you up during the night. Other things besides brain cancer can also cause these types of headaches.

How is it diagnosed?

Your healthcare provider will ask about your symptoms and medical history and examine you. You may have tests such as:

  • A neurological exam, which is simple tests to check your balance and walking, speech and memory, face and eye movements, muscle strength and reflexes, and your ability to see, hear, taste, and smell
  • X-rays
  • An angiogram, which uses contrast dye injected into a vein and X-rays to find blockages
  • CT, which uses X-rays and a computer to show detailed pictures of the brain
  • PET, which is a kind of X-ray that uses a radioactive material injected into a vein to show detailed pictures of the cancer
  • MRI, which uses a strong magnetic field and radio waves to show detailed pictures of the brain
  • Biopsy, which is the removal of a small sample of brain tissue for testing. When you have a biopsy, you will first be given an anesthetic so that you will not feel any pain.

You may need more lab tests and scans to check if the cancer has spread to other parts of your body.

How is it treated?

Some things to think about when making treatment decisions are:

  • Your age
  • Your overall health
  • The stage of the cancer (how advanced the cancer is)
  • Whether the cancer has spread to other parts of your body

Possible treatments are:

  • Chemotherapy (anticancer drugs), which uses medicine to kill cancer cells
  • Radiation therapy, which uses high-energy X-rays to kill cancer cells
  • Biological therapy, which uses medicine to help your immune system fight the cancer
  • Surgery to remove cancer cells
  • The use of electrodes, ultrasound, or electromagnetic radiation to destroy abnormal tissue.

Your treatment will also include:

  • Preventing infections
  • Controlling pain or other symptoms you may have
  • Controlling the side effects from treatments
  • Helping you manage your life with cancer

Often, more than 1 treatment is used. After treatment, you will need to have regular follow-up visits with your healthcare provider.

Ask your healthcare provider about clinical trials that might be available to you. Clinical trials are research studies to find effective cancer treatments. It’s always your choice whether you take part in one or not.

How can I take care of myself?

If you have been diagnosed with brain cancer:

  • Talk about your cancer and treatment options with your healthcare provider. Make sure you understand your choices.
  • Follow the full course of treatment prescribed by your healthcare provider.
  • Ask your healthcare provider:
    • How and when you will hear your test results
    • How long it will take to recover
    • What activities you should avoid and when you can return to your normal activities
    • How to take care of yourself at home
    • What symptoms or problems you should watch for and what to do if you have them

Make sure you know when you should come back for a checkup.

Other things that may help include:

  • Eat a healthy diet and get regular exercise as recommended by your healthcare provider.
  • Get plenty of rest.
  • Try to reduce stress and take time for activities that you enjoy. It may help to talk with a counselor about your illness.
  • Talk with your family and your healthcare providers about your concerns. Ask your healthcare provider any questions you have about the disease, treatments, side effects of the treatments, sexuality, support groups, and anything else that concerns you.
  • If you smoke, try to quit.
  • Ask your provider if you need to avoid drinking alcohol. It may interfere with medicines you are taking. Alcohol can also make it harder for white blood cells to fight infections.
  • Tell your provider if your treatment causes discomfort. Usually there are ways to help you feel more comfortable.

How can I help prevent the cancer from spreading or coming back?

  • Complete the full course of radiation, hormone, or chemotherapy treatments recommended by your healthcare provider.
  • See your healthcare provider right away if you notice a return of any previous signs or symptoms or develop any new ones.

For more information, contact:

Developed by RelayHealth.
Adult Advisor 2015.1 published by RelayHealth.
Last modified: 2014-10-08
Last reviewed: 2014-10-08
This content is reviewed periodically and is subject to change as new health information becomes available. The information is intended to inform and educate and is not a replacement for medical evaluation, advice, diagnosis or treatment by a healthcare professional.
Copyright ©1986-2015 McKesson Corporation and/or one of its subsidiaries. All rights reserved.

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