In 2015, nearly 13,000 men and more than 10,000 women will be diagnosed with primary cancerous tumors of the brain and spinal cord, according to the American Cancer Society. Brain tumors in adults may be linked to certain infections, viruses, or allergens. Only 5% of brain tumors are linked to hereditary or genetic conditions. Studies are currently underway exploring the link between certain types of brain tumors and environmental exposure to toxic chemicals, nitrites and nitrates, electromagnetic fields, head trauma, and nerve agents.
Signs and symptoms of brain tumors may mimic many other conditions, so a thorough medical evaluation is important to identify their underlying cause. However, brain tumor symptoms may include severe headaches that may worsen in the morning or with daily activities; seizures; sensory changes in vision, sensation, smell, or hearing; memory changes; personality changes; nausea or vomiting; or fatigue. Tumors in specific locations may cause pressure or a headache near the tumor; loss of balance or difficulty with motor skills; changes in vision, speech, hearing, memory, or emotional state; altered perception; lactation; or difficulty swallowing.
Clinical tests may begin with noninvasive neurological, vision and hearing tests, cognitive assessments of brain function, or electroencephalography (EEG) tests that monitor the brain for signs of seizure activity.
A magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scan or computed tomography (CT) scan may be used to diagnose a primary brain tumor. Other tests may include a cerebral arteriogram, a series of x-rays combined with a contrast agent that show arteries in the brain; a lumbar puncture or spinal tap, which takes a sample of cerebrospinal fluid to look for blood or tumor cells; or, rarely, a myelogram, which combines dye with x-rays to see if cancer has spread into the spinal cord .
A positron emission tomography (PET) scan may help identify an appropriate course of treatment or evaluate how effectively a treatment approach is working. Once a tumor is identified, a brain biopsy may be required to determine the exact type of brain tumor.
Treatment options vary depending on an individual’s results. They may include conventional surgery, stereotactic radiosurgery (targeting a high dose of radiation specifically to the tumor site), radiation therapy, chemotherapy, or a combination of methods. Cortical mapping is a new component of brain surgery that helps surgeons more accurately map out tumor locations and try to avoid removing tissue that affects speech, language, and motor skills.
A very small but promising study published in the March 2015 issue of Nature suggested a simple tetanus-diptheria vaccine booster administered in the same location where experimental immunotherapy was to begin the next day boosted the immune system -- and the length of survival -- of patients with glioblastoma enrolled in a clinical trial at Duke University Medical Center.
Uniquely, brain tumors may cause physical and emotional changes that can lead to difficulties returning to work, maintaining relationships, and handling stress. The American Brain Tumor Association connects patients and families with online and local support groups and provides information about living with the unique facets of brain tumors. Find support at the American Brain Tumor Association (ABTA).