Brain Tumor Diagnosis & Treatment
A brain tumor is a mass of tissue that is formed by a collection of abnormal cells in the brain or central spine canal that disrupt cognitive function. Normally, the cells in your body have a standard lifecycle: they develop, age, die and are eventually replaced. Cancer begins when normal cells change and grow uncontrollably, which forms a tumor.
There are two basic types of brain tumors-primary and metastatic. Primary brain tumors start and remain in the brain while metastatic brain tumors begin as cancer elsewhere in the body that eventually spreads to the brain. Brain tumors can also be benign or malignant and they can appear anywhere in the brain. A benign tumor consists of very slow-growing cells that have a distinct border that rarely spreads. Malignant tumors are usually rapidly-growing and life-threatening. Both benign and malignant brain tumors require treatment.
Brain Tumor Symptoms
Symptoms that may indicate a brain tumor can range from general to specific and they vary depending on the tumor type and location. General symptoms-like headaches and nausea-are believed to be caused by the tumor causing pressure on the brain or the spinal cord. Specific symptoms-like cognitive impairment or memory loss-occur when part of the brain is not functioning properly because of the tumor.
In the majority of cases, the most common initial symptoms of a brain tumor is a recurrent headache that does not subside with normal remedies. Other symptoms that could indicate a brain tumor include:
- Nausea and vomiting
- Vision problems
- Short-term memory loss
- Poor coordination
- Trouble speaking
- Comprehension problems
Types of Brain Tumors
While brain tumors are sometimes referred to as “brain cancer,” a tumor does not necessarily mean cancer. Because primary tumors rarely spread outside of the brain and spinal cord, most brain tumors do not fit the general definition of cancer. The most commonly diagnosed types of brain tumor include:
- Meningioma: The most common primary brain tumor found in adults, these tumors arise in the meninges-or the membrane that surrounds the brain and spinal cord.
- Astrocytoma: These tumors arise from astrocytes-the star-shaped cells that make up the supportive tissue of the brain. It usually doesn’t spread outside the brain and spinal cord, and it does not affect other organs.
- Oligodendroglia: Sometimes called oligodendrogliomas, these tumors arise in the cells that cover and protect nerves.
- Mixed glioma: This type of tumor has two types of tumor cells in it-oligodendrocytes and astrocytes.
The grade of the tumor is determined based on how the cells look under a microscope and by how quickly the tumor is likely to grow and spread-the higher the grade, the more malignant the tumor. The following grading system developed by the World Health Organization (WHO) is used to help you, your doctor, and caregivers/family better understand the prognosis:
- Grade I: These are the least malignant tumors. They grow slowly, and they can usually be removed with surgery. Once removed, these tumors rarely recur.
- Grade II: These tumors sometimes spread into nearby normal tissue and are relatively slow-growing. They can sometimes recur as a higher grade tumor.
- Grade III: These tumors are almost always malignant, but this stage presents very similarly to grade II. However, during this stage, the cells are actively reproducing-meaning they can grow into nearby tissue-and they tend to recur as a higher grade tumor.
- Grade IV: These tumors grow fast and spread easily into nearby, healthy parts of the brain. This is the most severe and life-threatening grade.
How are Brain Tumors Diagnosed?
Sometimes a brain tumor is found by accident-some doctors stumble upon them while testing for other conditions. However, most brain tumors usually found after a series of neurological exams and imaging tests.
In most cases, your doctor may choose to perform a biopsy in order to determine the type and grade of the tumor. A biopsy is a removal of a small amount of the tissue for examination under a microscope. It is the only definitive way to diagnose a brain tumor. A biopsy can be done as part of a surgical procedure to remove the entire tumor or as a separate procedure when it is not possible to completely remove the tumor.
Brain Tumor Treatment & Recovery
In general, brain tumors are treated with surgery, radiation therapy, chemotherapy, or a combination of the three. However, your treatment plan depends on a number of factors. The type, location, and size of the tumor all affect how it is treated-the patient’s age and overall health also play a role in their response to treatment.
Surgery, when possible, is typically the first and most effective way to remove a brain tumor. However, depending on the tumor’s location, surgery can be difficult; some brain tumors cannot be reached without damaging other tissues in the brain. In cases like these, your doctor will most likely recommend chemotherapy or radiation to kill or shrink the tumor.
Because the brain controls everything from motor skills to speech, physical and mental rehabilitation may be necessary as part of your recovery plan. This usually includes physical therapy to help you regain motor skills and muscle strength or speech therapy if you have difficulty speaking. Each patient’s recovery depends on the type, size, and location of the tumor.
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