Brain tumors are masses of tissue that occur when brain cells grow faster than normal and don't follow the normal life cycle of a cell. Tumors may be benign (not cancer) or malignant (cancer).
Even though benign brain tumors are not cancerous, they can press on sensitive areas of the brain and cause serious health problems. Usually these tumors can be removed with surgery or treated with radiation. Many benign tumors have a good overall prognosis. Malignant brain tumors contain cancer cells. They are more serious than benign tumors.
Primary brain tumors begin in brain tissue. They are named according to the type of cells or the part of the brain in which they begin.
Secondary brain tumors occur when cancer cells spread to the brain from another organ such as the lung or breast. Doctors may call the tumor a secondary or metastatic brain tumor. Secondary brain tumors are far more common than primary brain tumors.
Common Brain Tumors in Adults
The most common type of benign primary tumor in adults is meningioma, which arises in the meninges, thin layers of tissue that cover and protect the brain and spinal cord.
Gliomas are the most common malignant primary brain tumors in adults. These tumors are named for the different types of glial cells in which they begin. For example, astrocytomas arise from star-shaped glial cells called astrocytes.
Other types of primary brain tumors include oligodendrogliomas, tumors that arise from cells that make the fatty substance that covers and protects nerves.
Common Brain Tumors in Children
These are the most common types of brain tumors among children:
- Brain stem glioma: The tumor occurs in the lowest part of the brain.
- Ependymoma: The tumor arises from cells lining the ventricles or the central canal of the spinal cord.
- Grade I or II astrocytoma: This low-grade tumor occurs anywhere in the brain. The most common astrocytoma is juvenile pilocytic astrocytoma.
- Medulloblastoma: The tumor usually arises in the cerebellum. It's sometimes called a primitive neuroectodermal tumor.
This information from the National Cancer Institute describes brain tumors in adults. For more information about this disease in children, visit the National Cancer Institute.
The exact causes of brain tumors are unknown. Brain tumors are more common in males, except for meningiomas, which are more common in females. They occur more among white people, and most adult brain tumors are diagnosed in people over 70 years old. Family history and exposure to radiation and chemicals may also increase risk.
Research studies have found that neither cell phone use nor head injuries increase the risk of brain tumors.
The symptoms of brain tumors depend on the size, location, and type of tumor:
- Headaches that are worse in the morning with relief during the day
- Nausea and vomiting
- Weakness or loss of feeling in legs or arms
- Changes in speech or vision
These symptoms are also related to other health problems. A person with any of these symptoms should see a health care provider so the problem can be diagnosed and treated as early as possible.
Currently, there is no routine test to screen for a brain tumor. If symptoms suggest a brain tumor, the doctor will perform a physical exam and ask about the patient's personal and family health history. The doctor may also order one or more of the following tests:
- Neurologic exam: The doctor checks the patient's vision, hearing, alertness, muscle strength, coordination, and reflexes. The doctor also examines the eyes to look for swelling caused by a tumor pressing on the nerve that connects the eye and the brain.
- Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI): This procedure uses a magnet, radio waves, and a computer to make a series of detailed pictures of areas inside the body, such as the brain and spinal cord.
- CT scan: Doctors often use CT scans to take pictures of tissue inside the head. An x-ray machine linked to a computer takes several pictures. The pictures may show a tumor, abnormal fluid, swollen lymph nodes, or if the cancer has spread to other parts of the body.
- Angiogram: Dye injected into the bloodstream makes blood vessels in the brain show up on an x-ray. If a tumor is present, the x-ray may show the tumor or blood vessels feeding into the tumor.
- Lumbar puncture (spinal tap): Doctors may remove a sample of cerebrospinal fluid (the fluid that fills the spaces in and around the brain and spinal cord). A laboratory checks the fluid for cancer cells or other signs of problems.
- Biopsy: The doctor removes tissue to look for cancer cells. A biopsy is the only way to know for sure if cancer is present.
Brain biopsies are taken in one of two ways:
- Biopsy at the same time as treatment: The surgeon takes a tissue sample during surgery to remove part or all of the tumor.
- Stereotactic biopsy: Local or general anesthesia is given and a rigid head frame is worn for this procedure. The surgeon makes a small incision in the scalp and drills a small hole into the skull. CT or MRI is used to guide the needle through the burr hole to the location of the tumor. The surgeon withdraws a sample of tissue with the needle. A needle biopsy may be used when a tumor is deep inside the brain or in a part of the brain that can't be operated on.
The location of a brain tumor (for example, in the brain stem or certain other areas) can make it very difficult to remove tumor tissue without also harming normal brain tissue. In this case, the doctor uses MRI, CT, or other imaging tests to learn as much as possible about the brain tumor without a biopsy.
Doctors group brain tumors by grade. The grade of a tumor refers to the way the cells look under a microscope:
Grade I: The cells look nearly like normal brain cells, and they grow slowly.
Grade II: The cells look less like normal cells than the cells of a Grade I tumor.
Grade III: The cells look very different from normal cells. The abnormal cells are actively growing (anaplastic).
Grade IV: The cells look extremely abnormal and tend to grow quickly.
Cells from low-grade tumors (grades I and II) look more normal and generally grow more slowly than cells from high-grade tumors (grades III and IV).
Over time, a low-grade tumor may become a high-grade tumor. The change to a high-grade tumor happens more often in adults than children.
At Huntsman Cancer Institute, brain tumors are treated by a team of specialists, including neurologists (doctors who specialize in diseases of the brain), neurosurgeons, medical oncologists, radiation oncologists, nurses, social workers, dieticians, and other professionals.
The treatment options that are right for each patient depend on the type and grade of the tumor. Treatment methods may include the following:
- Radiation therapy and radiosurgery
- Clinical trials
This treatment removes as much of the tumor as possible. Sometimes, surgery is done to obtain a tissue sample (called a biopsy).
These treatments use high-energy rays to kill tumor cells. Current procedures use extremely accurate radiation beams to pinpoint the tumor tissue and protect normal brain tissue.
This treatment uses drugs to kill tumor cells, reduce tumor size, or slow tumor growth. Learn more about this treatment in our introduction to chemotherapy video.
These studies discover and evaluate new and improved cancer treatments. Patients are encouraged to talk with their doctors about participating in a clinical trial or any questions regarding research studies. For more information, also visit HCI's clinical trials website.
When you or someone you love is diagnosed with cancer, concerns about treatments and managing side effects, hospital stays, and medical bills are common. You may also worry about caring for your family, employment, or how to continue normal daily activities.
Here's where you can go for support:
- Your health care team can answer your questions and talk to you about your concerns. They can help you with any side effects and keep you informed of all your treatments, test results, and future doctor visits.
- Our Patient and Family Support Services professionals offer HCI patients and their families emotional support and resources for coping with cancer and its impact on daily life.
- The Linda B. and Robert B. Wiggins Wellness-Survivorship Center offers support groups, classes, and activities aimed to increase the quality of life and well-being of HCI patients and their families.
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Brain, Spine, and Skull Base Cancer Program
Care coordinator: Tammie Reynolds
Did You Know?
- Brain tumors are more common in males, except for meningiomas, which are more common in females.
- Lung cancer, breast cancer, kidney cancer, melanoma, and other types of cancer often spread to the brain. When this happens, the tumors are called metastatic brain tumors or brain metastases.
- The Brain, Spine, and Skull Base Cancer Program at Huntsman Cancer Institute provides each patient with state-of-the-art medical, surgical, and radiation care. Patients are guided through the process of diagnosis, treatment, and social services to ensure individual needs are met.