Brain cancer is also known as glioma, a malignant brain tumor with a very bad prognosis. It occurs when there is abnormal cell growth and division in the brain tissue.
What is the Brain?
The brain is the seat of cognitive functions, such as perception, reasoning, memorization, decision making, vision, and all executive functions. All these vital functions are made possible by specialized cells in the brain that work consistently and harmoniously. Brain cancer occurs if a group of cells in the brain multiply, or grow abnormally. Although often asymptomatic at early stages, brain cancer can severely impair all functions of your body and ruin your life.
Brain cancer may be primary or secondary. In primary brain cancer, a tumor is born in the tissue of the brain; secondary brain cancer arose from another part of the body and metastasizes to the brain. Whatever the form or origin of a tumor, brain cancer is a life-threatening condition.
However, new scientific discoveries in the medical field have improved the lives of brain cancer patients; if you are diagnosed with brain cancer, some treatments can help you manage or control the disease, and help you live longer.
Despite advances in medical science, news about brain cancer incidence is not pleasant. The prevalence 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 people with secondary brain cancer. Meanwhile, 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 in 2009; and about 12,920 people died of it.
Unlike secondary brain cancer, primary brain cancer rises from the brain tissue itself. This can occur when some of the cervical cells such as astrocytes (also called astroglia) and glial cells, (called neuroglia or merely glial) multiply abnormally to form a cancerous mass or a malignant tumor.
Brain cancer tends to proliferate and impacts all vital functions of the brain. A secondary brain cancer, on the other hand, comes from cancer of another organ: breast, lung, skin, or cancer of blood cells such as leukemia or lymphoma. In this case, a tumor has spread via the bloodstream or lymphatic system to form metastases in the brain; this condition is called metastatic cancer.
Cancer can develop and remains in one area of the brain. In severe cases, the cancer cells may invade other parts of the brain. In this case, the treatment becomes more difficult, and survival chances decrease considerably. Most of the times, when cancer is detected, its cause is unknown; however, researchers have identified many risk factors that can lead to brain cancer.
3. Risk Factors.
The causes of brain cancer are not well known, but some factors are suspected in their developments which include:
- A family history of glioma – You are at higher risk of brain cancer if your family has a history of glioma, 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 aged over 40 and children aged 3 to 12 years.
- Gender – Brain tumors are more common in men than women.
- Environment – Exposure to ionising radiation, formaldehyde, vinyl chloride, and acrylonitrile can significantly increase 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 are also considered as risk factors for brain cancer:
- Head trauma.
- Prolonged cell phone use.
- Radiation exposure.
Brain cancer symptoms vary depending on the size and location of a 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 a headache. Though, a headache signals dozens of other states, however, some indications can help you differentiate a brain cancer headache from that of an ordinary headache.
Headaches caused by a brain cancer are severe and are often associated with nausea and vomiting. Also, the pain is usually 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 -a double vision for instance
- Weakness or numbness on one side of your body
- State of confusion or difficulty concentrating
- Changes in mood, senses, personality or feelings.
- Seizures, which can lead to paralysis of one side of your body.
Brain cancer is a life-threatening disease; 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.
Initially, your health care provider will ask you questions about your medical history, and the characteristics of the symptoms that you experience. After which, he will do a physical examination searching for signs indicating brain cancer such as:
Paralysis of one side of the body, speech disorder and loss of coordination. Such a test can give an idea of the existence of the disease but, no confirmation. Other more specific examination, 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 an insight on the health of your brain and surrounding tissues. These examinations are necessary not only to detect cancer but, also to determine if it has metastasized.
- 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 and to detect neurological problems or examine 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 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. These examinations are critical in the choice of the treatments.
Before even considering an appropriate remedy, it is crucial for your doctor to determine the type, size, and degree of malignancy of cancer in your brain. He will also consider if other organs are affected by a tumor. With this, a group of doctors will decide which therapies are most useful to combat a brain tumor.
In the case of secondary brain cancer, your doctor will first take care of a primary tumor, before he performs surgery on your brain. Metastatic brain cancer will be treated with Chemotherapy, radiotherapy, and immunotherapy. If a tumor is primitive, that is, it grows directly from the brain tissue; your physician will perform surgery, provided that a tumor is accessible.
Most of the times, the surgery will be followed by chemotherapy, radiotherapy, and immunotherapy. Ask about possible side effects of the treatment; the more you know, the more you will be able to prevent or reduce these adverse effects and improve your life.
Surgical intervention is included in the treatment of brain cancer. During the operation, a trained surgeon opens your skull (craniotomy) to remove part or an entire tumor. If surgery is not possible in the treatment of the brain cancer; other methods, such as chemotherapy and radiotherapy will be used.
This systematic treatment involves the use of drugs to shrink or eliminate a brain tumor. Usually, chemotherapy drugs work by destroying cancerous cells.
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, the natural defense system of the body that 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 the cells of the body, radiotherapy acts primarily on the brain tumor; it involves the use of radiation to destroy cancerous cells in a specific area of the body by blocking their ability to multiply. Radiation therapy is designed to kill 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.
Although radiation therapy is less toxic than chemotherapy, it can cause some side effects in individual patients:
- Hair loss.
- Weight loss.
- Skin reaction.
- Hearing problem.
- Tearing and eye redness.
- Cataracts (rare).
- A dull headache.
Brain cancer is associated with seizures. Your doctor may recommend you to take anti-epileptic medications if he realizes that you are prone to seizure attack.
8. Survival Rates.
The effectiveness of the treatments or your survival chances varies depending on the type of cancer you have, its size and location in the brain. There is progress in the treatment of brain cancer in recent years; however, the prognosis is sometimes alarming. The overall five-year relative survival rate of brain cancer for 1999-2005 was about 34.8%; death often occurs within two years of diagnosis.
However, the survival rates vary by sex and race; thus, for 1999-2005:
- Black women lived long after the treatment; their five-year survival rate was about 43.7% while white women; their survival rate was approximately 36.1%.
- Black men survival rate 33.9% while Caucasian men have the 32.4 per cent.
From 2002-2006, the median age at death for cancer of the brain and other nervous system was 64 years of age; approximately:
- 4.3% died under age 20.
- 3.8% between 20 and 34.
- 7.4% between 35 and 44.
- 15.2% between 45 and 54.
- 21.3% between 55 and 64.
- 22.3% between 65 and 74.
- 19.5% between 75 and 84.
- 6.1% 85+ years of age.