Brain cancer, also called glioma or meningioma, is a malignant brain tumor. The disease occurs when there is a malignant cellular growth and division in the brain tissue. The brain plays multiple roles. It processes information from the senses and hormones such as the desire to eat and sleep, and controls motor functions of the body like voluntary movement. The brain is the seat of cognitive functions, allowing for perception, reasoning, memorization, decision-making, vision and all executive functions to occur.
All those vital functions are made possible by special cells in the brain that work constantly and harmoniously. Brain cancer occurs when a group of cells in the brain undergo a change to abnormally grow and multiply. Although often asymptomatic at early stages, brain cancer can severely impair all functions of your body and ruin or destroy your life.
Brain cancer may be primary as well secondary. In a primary brain cancer, the cancer is born in the tissue of the brain. In the case of secondary brain cancer, the cancer comes from another part of the body and metastasized to the brain. Whatever the form or origin of the tumor, brain cancer is a threatening condition.
However, new scientific discoveries in the medical field help improve the life of brain cancer patients. If you are diagnosed with brain cancer, there are treatments that can help you manage or control the disease, and help you live longer.
Brain Cancer Statistics
Despite advances in medical science, news about brain cancer incidence is not pleasant. The incidence of brain cancer is estimated at 20 cases per 100,000 people. Every year, in the United States, at least 19,000 people are diagnosed with primary brain cancer and 100,000 with secondary brain cancer. Primary brain cancer alone causes approximately 13,000 deaths each year.
According to the National Cancer Institute (NCI), it is estimated that 22,070 men and women (12,010 men and 10,060 women) were diagnosed with cancer of the brain and other nervous system issues in 2009 with about 12,920 people died of it.
Brain Cancer Causes
Unlike secondary brain cancer, primary brain cancer rises from the brain tissue itself. This occurs when some of the cervical cells such as astrocytes (also called astroglia) and glial cells (called neuroglia or simply glia) multiply abnormally to form a cancerous mass or malignant tumor. Brain cancer tends to grow rapidly and impacts all vital functions of the brain.
A secondary brain cancer comes from a cancer of another organ (the breast, lung, skin), or cancer of blood cells such as leukemia or lymphoma. In this case, the cancer has spread via the bloodstream or lymphatic system to form metastases in the brain. This condition is called metastatic cancer.
A cancer can develop and remain in one area of the brain. In severe cases, the cancer cells may invade many parts of the brain. In this case, the treatment becomes more difficult, and survival chances decrease considerably. Most of the time, even when the cancer is detected, its cause is unknown; however, researchers have identified many risk factors that can lead to brain cancer.
Brain Cancer Risk Factors
The causes of brain cancer are not well known, but some factors are clearly suspected in its development:
- Family history of glioma—You are at greater risk of brain cancer if your family has a history of glioma, which is a tumor that arises from the supportive tissue of the brain or the spine.
- Age – Although the disease can knock on one’s door at any age, brain cancer is more common among adults over 40 and children aged 3-12 years.
- Gender – Brain tumors are more common in men than women.
- Environment – Exposure to ionizing radiation, formaldehyde, vinyl chloride, and acrylonitrile can significantly increases your chance of suffering from brain cancer.
- Viral infection – AIDS / HIV patients are at risk of developing a form of brain cancer called primary central nervous system lymphoma (PCNSL).
- Cigarette smoking – Cigarette smoke is the enemy of all organs in your body, including your brain.
Although the following are not proven, they also considered as risk factors of brain cancer:
- head trauma
- prolonged cell phone use
- radiation exposure
Brain Cancer Symptoms
Brain cancer symptoms vary depending on the size and location of the tumor. A non-metastasized brain cancer of small size may produce few or no symptoms. In fact, most symptoms of brain cancer are similar to those of other medical conditions. For example, brain cancer is often associated with headache, but it does not always indicate the disease. However, there are indications that can help you differentiate a brain cancer headache from that of ordinary medical medications. Headaches caused by a brain cancer are severe and are associated with nausea and vomiting. In addition, the pain is often worse early in the day.
In addition to headaches, you may also experience the following symptoms if you have brain cancer:
- language impairment
- nausea and vomiting
- loss of appetite
- chronic memory impairment
- vision problems such as double vision
- weakness or numbness on one side of your body
- state of confusion or difficulty concentrating
- changes of mood, senses, personality or feelings
- seizures, which can lead to paralysis of one side of your body
Brain Cancer Complications
Brain cancer is a life threatening disease, and even with effective therapies, it can lead to neurological and physiological damage. Some complications that can be associated with brain cancer include:
- brain herniation (fatal)
- permanent progressive neurological disorders
- recurring brain cancer
Brain Cancer Diagnosis
Initially, your health care provider will ask you questions about your medical history and characteristics of the symptoms that you experience. After which, he will do a physical examination searching for signs indicating brain cancer. Common signs would be paralysis of one side of body, speech disorders, and loss of coordination. Such tests can give an idea of the existence of the disease, but no confirmation. Other more specific exams such as imaging techniques, electroencephalography, and biopsy will be performed to confirm the diagnosis.
Imaging techniques – Imaging tests such as X-ray, ultrasound, computed tomography scan (CT scan), and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) will be performed to enable your doctor to have a clear idea on the health of your brain and surrounding tissues. These exams are necessary not only to detect the cancer but also to determine if it has metastasized to other organs.
Electroencephalography (EEG) – This technique allows your health care provider to record the electrical activity of your brain using electrodes placed on your scalp. It is a painless procedure and requires no anesthesia; its role is to provide information about the neurophysiological activity of your brain in order to detect neurological problems or examine the following cognitive functions: perception, motor, language, memory, reasoning, and emotions.
Biopsy – To confirm with certainty the presence of cancerous cells in your brain, a biopsy is usually required. During the procedure, cells or brain tissue will be obtained either by surgical intervention or insertion of a needle. The sample will be sent to a laboratory to be examined under a microscope. If cancer cells are found, your doctor will do other tests to determine the severity of the cancer.
Other tests – An examination of your cerebrospinal fluid and blood (mostly white blood cell counts and electrolytes) will be done to determine the degree of malignancy of the cells and state of your health in general. These examinations are very important when considering your treatment options.
Brain Cancer Treatment
Before even considering an appropriate treatment, it is important for your doctor to determine the type, size, and degree of malignancy of the cancer in your brain. He will also consider other organs affected by the tumor in case of a metastatic brain cancer. In addition, your age and general health status will be important factors. Having this information, a group of doctors will decide which therapies are most effective to combat the tumor.
In case of a secondary brain cancer, your doctor will first take care of the primary cancer before he performs surgery on your brain. Metastatic brain cancer will be treated with chemotherapy, radiotherapy, and/or immunotherapy. If the cancer is primitive, grows directly from the brain tissue, and the tumor is accessible, your physician will perform a surgery. Most of the time, the surgery will be followed by chemotherapy, radiotherapy, and/or immunotherapy.
The three main methods of treatment of brain cancer are surgery, chemotherapy and radiotherapy, which can be used alone or in combination. Always ask your doctor the most effective treatments for your type of cancer, and what you can do to increase your survival chance. Also, ask about possible side effects of the treatment. The more you know, the more you’ll be able to prevent or reduce these adverse effects and improve your life.
Brain cancer surgery
Surgical intervention is often included in the treatment of brain cancer. During the surgery, a well-trained surgeon opens your skull (craniotomy) to remove part or the entire tumor. In some cases, surgery is not possible in the treatment of brain cancer; other methods such as chemotherapy and radiotherapy will be used.
This systematic treatment involves the use of drugs to shrink or eliminate the tumor. Usually, chemotherapy drugs work by destroying cancerous cells, which multiply hierarchically, and some healthy cells, which grow rapidly. Chemotherapy drugs work by acting on DNA in cells to block their reproduction. However, chemotherapy tends to damage the bone marrow and weaken the immune system, which fights against infections and all pathogenic attacks. This lead to a variety of side effects in some patients, which can include:
- temporary hair loss
- mouth sores
Unlike chemotherapy, which attacks all cells of the body, radiotherapy acts on the tumor. It involves the use of radiation to destroy cancer cells in a specific area of the body by blocking their ability to multiply. Radiation therapy is designed to destroy all tumor cells of the treated area while sparing the surrounding healthy tissue. You may receive external beam radiotherapy or implanted radiotherapy. If your oncologist believes it will help, he can recommend both methods.
Although radiation therapy is less toxic than chemotherapy, it can cause some side effects in certain patients:
- hair loss
- weight loss
- skin reaction
- hearing problem
- tearing and/or eye redness
- cataracts (rare)
- dull headache
Brain cancer is often associated with seizures. Your doctor may recommend you to take anti-epileptic medications if he realizes that you are prone to seizure attack.
Brain Cancer Survival Rates
The effectiveness of the treatments or your survival chances depends on the type of cancer you have, its size, and location in the brain. There are progresses in the treatment of brain cancer in recent years; however, the prognosis is sometimes alarming. The overall 5-year relative survival rate of brain cancer for 1999-2005 was about 34.8%; death often occurs within 2 years of diagnosis.
However, the survival rates vary by sex and race; thus, for 1999-2005:
- Black women lived longer after the treatment; their five year survival rate was about 43.7%.
- Caucasian women’s survival rate was about 36.1%.
- Black men’s survival rate was about 33.9%.
- Caucasian men have the lowest rate at about 32.4 %.
From 2002-2006, the median age at death for cancer of the brain and other nervous system was 64 years of age:
- 4.3% died under age 20
- 3.8% between 20- 34
- 7.4% between 35- 44
- 15.2% between 45-54
- 21.3% between 55-64
- 22.3% between 65-74
- 19.5% between 75-84
- 6.1% 85+ years of age
Brain Cancer Prevention
Prevention of recurrence is very important after treatment. Regular and extended monitoring is necessary to detect early relapse and manage the side effects of the treatment. Therefore, your doctor will recommend neurological examinations, blood tests, and a CT or MRI to confirm whether the treatment makes progress or not. In cases of recurrence, your doctor will suggest other sessions of chemotherapy and / or radiotherapy.
These preventive measures can help you prevent not only the development of brain cancer, but other types of cancer:
- stop smoking
- adopt a healthy diet
- maintain a healthy weight
- do physical exercise regularly
- limit your alcohol consumption
- practice safe sex to avoid STDs, including HIV infection
- reduce your exposure to ionizing radiation, formaldehyde, vinyl chloride, and acrylonitrile
- avoid prolonged exposure to sun rays or artificial tanning devices, such as tanning beds
- avoid prolonged use of cell phone