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May is Brain Tumor Awareness Month, a time to brush up on the facts. Here’s what you should know about brain tumors:

What Are Brain Tumors?

When you hear of a brain tumor, you may automatically think of brain cancer. While brain tumors are scary, they are not always malignant. There are two types of brain tumors:

  • Benign tumors

    • Noncancerous
    • Slow growing
    • Grow locally in the region they originated from
    • Are often cured if they can be surgically removed
  • Malignant tumors

    • Cancerous
    • More difficult to treat
    • Grow rapidly
    • Usually invade surrounding brain and nervous tissue

Brain tumors are classified as a primary or secondary tumor. Secondary brain tumors originate from another part of the body. They most often occur in people who have a history of cancer. But in rare cases, a metastatic brain tumor may be the first sign of cancer that started elsewhere. Any cancer can spread to the brain, the most common ones being breast cancer, lung cancer, and melanoma.

Primary brain tumors originate in the brain and are named according to the type of cell they originate from. The most common primary brain tumors are astrocytomas, also known as gliomas (these tumors come in different grades according to their aggressiveness) and meningioma (a most often benign tumor arising from the coating of the brain).

Brain Tumor Treatment

There are several standard treatments for brain tumors, depending on the type:

  • Surgery
  • Radiation therapy including stereotactic radiosurgery
  • Chemotherapy
  • Anti-angiogenic therapy targeting tumor blood vessels leading to tumor starvation

Many new cutting-edge treatments are currently being studied, including vaccines, and other personalized, targeted therapies that are directed at the molecular changes of one’s individual brain tumor.

Risk Factors

  • Occupation: some types of brain tumors are more frequent among workers in certain industries, such as oil refining and rubber manufacturing and workers exposed to ionizing radiation.
  • Age: The risk of a brain tumor increases with age. Brain tumors are most common in older adults. However, a brain tumor can occur at any age. Certain types of brain tumors occur almost exclusively in children.
  • Radiation exposure: there has been some connection between ionizing radiation and brain tumors. This type of radiation typically comes from cancer treatment. Survivors of childhood cancer who have received radiation therapy involving the brain or spine are at an increased risk of brain or spine tumors.
  • Family History: While most brain tumors are not familial, a small percentage of tumors occur in patients with certain genetic syndromes that increase the risk of brain cancer.

Currently, it is not believed that head injuries cause brain tumors to develop. There is also no conclusive evidence linking cell phone use, microwaves or electromagnetic fields related to power lines to brain tumor development.

Signs and Symptoms of Brain Tumors

Symptoms of a brain or spinal cord tumor can happen suddenly or may become worse over time. Symptoms may include:

  • Headache
  • Blurred vision
  • Vomiting/Nausea
  • Balance problems
  • Personality changes
  • Seizures

While these symptoms are not always caused by brain tumors, you should consult your doctor if they persist.