Introduction to Brain Cancer
Brain cancer should be used specifically when referring to malignant (cancerous) brain tumours, as opposed to benign (non-cancerous) tumours.
What is Brain Cancer?
Brain cancer is a confusing term that is often used to describe different conditions. Brain cancer should be used specifically when referring to malignant (cancerous) brain tumours, as opposed to benign (non-cancerous) tumours. Malignant brain tumours are fast growing cancers that invade other areas of the brain and spinal cord. Most malignant brain tumours start in a different location in the body and spread to the brain (secondary tumours). Primary malignant brain tumours are rare, with around 5000 new diagnoses each year in the UK. Malignant brain tumours are categorised by the cell type of origin: astrocytomas develop from supporting cells in the brain known as astrocytes, oligodendrocytomas develop from fatty insulating cells in the brain, and ependymomas develop from cells that line brain tissue. If you are experiencing symptoms associated with malignant brain tumour, see an oncologist or GP.
What causes Brain Cancer?
Malignant brain tumours are usually caused by a cancer spreading from a different part of the body to the brain; these are ‘secondary tumours.’ Cancers that may spread to the brain include breast cancer, bowel cancer, lung cancer and melanoma skin cancer. There are several known risk factors for developing malignant brain cancer including older age, family history, and exposure to radiation. Furthermore, genetic conditions such as neurofibromatosis type 1 and 2, tuberous sclerosis, Li-Fraumeni syndrome and von Hippel-Lindau syndrome can increase your risk.
What are the symptoms of Brain Cancer?
The symptoms caused by a malignant brain tumour depend on its size and location in the brain. Symptoms include severe headaches that are worse in the morning, nausea and vomiting, drowsiness, seizures, and blurred or loss of vision. Clearly, these symptoms are fairly non-specific and are associated with other, less severe conditions.
If the tumour is located in the brainstem, you may experience difficulty walking, swallowing and speaking. You may also feel unsteady and experience double vision. If the tumour is in the cerebellum you may experience abnormal eye movements and loss of co-ordination. If the tumour is in the occipital lobe of the brain, you may experience a loss of vision on one side. If the tumour is located in the parietal lobe, you may experience numbness of weakness on one side of the body. If the tumour is located in the temporal lobe, you may become forgetful and suffer language problems. Finally, if the tumour is located in the frontal lobe, you may experience a change in personality and a loss of sense of smell.
How is Brain Cancer treated?
Malignant brain tumours usually require surgery to remove as much as possible, along with chemotherapy and radiotherapy to target the remaining cells. If the cancer has spread from another part of the body, the tumour is usually incurable and treatment focusses on prolonging life and dealing with adverse symptoms. Corticosteroids may be used to reduce pressure in the brain, painkillers are used to address headaches, anti-emetics are used to prevent vomiting and anticonvulsants can be used to prevent seizures.