Brain Cancer

Medically Reviewed By William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
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What is brain cancer?

Brain cancer is a serious form of cancer that occurs when there is an uncontrolled growth of cancer cells that form a malignant tumor in the brain.

Normally, cells in the brain that are old or damaged will stop dividing and die. These cells are replaced by healthy young cells. Brain cancer occurs when old or damaged cells continue to divide and multiply uncontrollably. These abnormal cells eventually develop into a malignant mass of tissue (tumor) and crowd out and destroy healthy cells in the brain. As brain cancer grows, it interferes with vital processes and functions of the brain and spinal cord.

Not all brain tumors are malignant (cancerous). Some types of brain tumors are benign (noncancerous). Either way, the effect of an expanding mass on nearby brain structures can lead to serious medical consequences.

There are two main types of brain cancer:

  • Primary brain cancer begins growing in the brain itself. Primary brain cancer is the rarest type of brain cancer. It can spread and invade healthy tissues in the brain and spinal cord but rarely spreads to other parts of the body. Each year about 19,000 people in the United States are diagnosed with primary brain cancer, according to the National Cancer Institute (Source: NCI).

  • Secondary brain cancer is more common than primary brain cancer. Secondary brain cancer is caused by a cancer that has begun in another part of the body, such as in the lung, breast, kidney, skin or prostate that spreads to the brain. Secondary brain cancer is also called metastatic brain cancer.

The prognosis for people with brain cancer varies depending on the cancer’s type, location, and stage of advancement; your age, general health status, and medical history; and other factors. Diagnosing brain cancer in its earliest stage provides the best hope for successful treatment or cure.
Brain cancer can lead to life-threatening complications and be fatal, especially if it goes undetected and untreated. Seeking regular medical care offers the best chances of discovering cancer in its earliest, most curable stage. If you have brain cancer, following your treatment plan may help reduce your risk of serious complications of brain cancer.

What are the symptoms of brain cancer?

Brain cancer may not produce any symptoms in its earliest stage, when it is most treatable. When symptoms occur, they can vary among individuals and differ depending on the stage of advancement and where the cancer is located in the brain.

Many symptoms of brain cancer are caused by the impact of the growing tumor on the brain and spinal cord. Symptoms are typically neurological in nature and include:

  • Abnormal pupil size

  • Balance problems, difficulty walking, and falls

  • Blurred or double vision

  • Changes in hearing, taste or smell

  • Changes in mood, personality or behavior

  • Difficulties with memory, thinking, talking, comprehension, writing or reading

  • Dizziness or vertigo

  • Droopy eyelid

  • Headaches, which may disrupt sleep, may be worse in the morning or when lying down

  • Inability to rotate the eyes

  • Incoordination

  • Muscle twitching, spasms or seizures

  • Muscle weakness

  • Nausea and vomiting

  • Numbness or tingling in arms or legs

  • Sleep disorder

What causes brain cancer?

Brain cancer occurs when there is an uncontrolled growth of cancer cells in the brain that form a malignant brain tumor. The underlying cause of primary brain cancer, cancer that begins in the brain, is not known. Secondary brain cancer is caused by a cancer of another organ in the body, such as the breast, prostate, kidney, skin, or bone, that has spread to the brain.

What are the risk factors for brain cancer?

A number of factors may increase your chances of developing brain cancer. Not all people with risk factors will develop brain cancer, and some people who do not have risk factors will develop brain cancer.

Risk factors include:

  • Certain inherited conditions, including neurofibromatosis, Von Hippel-Lindau syndrome, Li-Fraumeni syndrome, and Turcot syndrome

  • Personal history of cancer or family history of brain cancer

  • Impaired immune system

  • Radiation therapy of the head

How is brain cancer treated?

Treatment of brain cancer begins with seeking regular medical care throughout your life. Regular medical care allows your health care professional to best evaluate symptoms, such as headaches and numbness, and your risks of developing brain cancer, and promptly order diagnostic testing. These measures greatly increase the chances of detecting brain cancer in its earliest, most curable stage.

The goal of brain cancer treatment is to permanently cure the cancer or to bring about a complete remission of the disease. Remission means that there is no longer any sign of the disease in the body, although it may recur or relapse later. Brain cancer treatment plans use a multifaceted approach that is individualized to the type of cancer, location, and stage of advancement; your age, medical history, and coexisting diseases or conditions; and other factors.

Brain cancer treatment

Treatment for brain cancer is best planned and delivered by a team of specialists in brain cancer care. These specialists may include a neurologist, neurosurgeon, neurooncologist, neuroradiologist , and oncology registered nurses who specialize in cancer care.

Brain cancer treatment may include an individualized combination of:

  • Chemotherapy

  • Dietary counseling to help people with cancer maintain their strength and nutritional status

  • Pain medications

  • Palliative care to improve the overall quality of life for families and patients with serious diseases

  • Participation in a clinical trial to test promising new therapies and treatments for brain cancer

  • Physical therapy to help strengthen the body, increase alertness, reduce fatigue, and improve functional ability during and after cancer treatment

  • Radiation therapy after surgery to help ensure that any cancer cells that remain after surgery have been killed. Radiation therapy may also be used for a patient whose brain tumor cannot be surgically removed or as an alternative to surgery (stereotactic radiosurgery).

  • Surgery to remove all or part of the cancerous brain tumor. The amount of tumor removed varies depending on its size, location in the brain, and other factors. It may not be possible to remove all of a tumor because it could affect healthy brain tissue and cause permanent brain damage. It may not be possible to remove any portion of certain brain tumors, such as those on the brain stem.

Complementary treatments

Some complementary treatments may help some people to better deal with brain cancer and its treatments. These treatments, sometimes referred to as alternative therapies, are used in conjunction with traditional medical treatments. Complementary treatments are not meant to substitute for traditional medical care. Be sure to notify your doctor if you are consuming nutritional supplements or homeopathic (nonprescription) remedies as they may interact with the prescribed medical therapy.

Complementary treatments may include:

  • Acupuncture

  • Massage therapy

  • Nutritional dietary supplements, herbal remedies, tea beverages, and similar products

  • Yoga

Hospice care

In cases in which brain cancer has progressed to an advanced stage and has become unresponsive to treatment, the goal of treatment shifts away from curing the disease and focuses on treating the person. The goal of hospice care is to help people in their last phases of an incurable disease to live as fully and comfortably as possible. Hospice care involves medically controlling pain and other symptoms while providing psychological and spiritual support as well as services to support the patient’s family.

What are the potential complications of brain cancer?

Complications of brain cancer are life threatening. Complications of brain cancer are caused by an abnormally rapid growth of old or damaged cells that develop into masses or malignant tumors and crowd out and destroy healthy brain cells. Brain tumors must spread inward because the rigid skull will not let a brain tumor expand outward. This puts excessive pressure on the spinal cord and brain, called increased intracranial pressure. Over time, this can lead to serious complications including:

  • Permanent brain damage

  • Physical disability

  • Seizures and tremors

  • Unconsciousness and coma

You can best treat brain cancer and lower your risk of complications or delay their development by following the treatment plan that you and your health care team design specifically for you.

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Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2020 Aug 21
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THIS TOOL DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.
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  2. Stereotactic radiosurgery – Cyberknife. Medline Plus, a service of the National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health.
  3. Tierney LM Jr., Saint S, Whooley MA (Eds.) Current Essentials of Medicine (4th ed.). New York: McGraw-Hill, 2011.