Hearing the words “brain tumor” might be frightening, but it’s important to note that not every brain tumor is cancerous. Find out the answers to some common questions, including what causes brain tumors, how they are diagnosed, and whether or not brain tumors are curable. What are brain tumors? Brain tumors are abnormal growths of tissue in the brain. Sometimes these growths are benign (non-cancerous), while other times the growth results from cancer cells that rapidly multiply. Tumors can occur in any area of the brain. Brain tumor treatment options often depend on where the tumor is located within the brain and whether the tumor is benign or malignant (cancerous). Some benign tumors never require treatment because they usually grow very slowly and can exist for years without causing symptoms. Malignant brain tumors do require treatment because they tend to grow quickly, invade surrounding tissues, and even spread to other parts of the body. What causes brain tumors? The cause of most primary brain tumors (those that originate within the brain itself) is not known. Benign tumors may be caused by slight errors in the way cells replicate DNA, which makes them multiply at a higher rate than usual. Malignant brain tumors, like any cancer, may be caused by DNA mutations that cause the cells to multiply rapidly, aggressively invade healthy tissue, and make it impossible for the tissue to function normally. Secondary (metastatic) brain tumors are caused by cancer in another part of the body that spreads to the brain. In these cases, the original (primary) cancer causes the brain tumor to develop. Lung cancer, for example, frequently spreads to the brain and causes a tumor. Secondary brain tumors are named after the original site of the cancer. So, if someone has lung cancer that causes a brain tumor, that tumor would be considered “metastatic lung cancer,” not “brain cancer.” Only primary malignant tumors can be considered cancer of the brain. Are all brain tumors cancer? Fortunately, not all brain tumors are cancerous. Many common tumors, including meningiomas that form in the protective tissue that covers the brain and schwannomas that occur in the tissues that wrap nerve cells, rarely are malignant. In children, astrocytomas—tumors that arise in the brain’s glial cells, which support and insulate the brain’s nerve cells—often are benign. If you receive a brain tumor diagnosis, don’t rush to the belief it’s cancerous. There’s a chance it’s not. How is brain tumor diagnosed? As with many medical conditions, the path to a brain tumor diagnosis begins with a physical exam. Your doctor will take a complete inventory of your symptoms and family health history. The exam likely will include an assessment of certain neurological functions, such as coordination, balance and reflexes. If your doctor suspects a brain tumor, the next step likely will be an imaging test, such as computed tomography (CT) or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). Brain tumor diagnosis also might include various blood tests, an examination of the cerebrospinal fluid (CSF), or a biopsy (removal of a few cells from the tumor to test for malignancy). Are brain tumors curable? Some brain tumors can be fully cured. Other times the cancer might remain in the body, but it stops growing and all of its symptoms go away (a state called remission). The outcome depends on the type, location and staging of the tumor involved. Benign brain tumors can be considered fully cured if they are removed. Many doctors don’t like to use the term cured when referring to cancer, because the chance of recurrence may always exist. However, some types of malignant brain tumors can be forced into remission through various treatments that include surgery, radiation therapy, and chemotherapy. The prognosis for any malignant brain tumor depends highly on the type of cancer, location of the tumor, how advanced it is, whether it has spread elsewhere in the body, and a person’s overall health status. The words brain tumor can be a scary thing to hear, but advances in treatment therapies should give you hope if you or a loved one has received this diagnosis. Together with your healthcare team, you can craft a treatment plan to address any cancer while using complementary therapies to give you the best possible quality of life during the process.