Brain Cancer Overview
Primary brain cancer results from the uncontrolled growth and division of cells in the brain. The excess cells then bind together and form tumors, which can interfere with neurological functions.
Compared to other cancers, primary brain cancer is relatively rare. The most common type is glioblastoma, which develops in astrocytes. These star-shaped glial cells play an essential role in supporting and maintaining the health and function of neurons, the primary cells responsible for transmitting electrical signals within the central nervous system (CNS).
What is the difference between brain cancer and brain metastasis?
Primary brain cancer originates in the brain. Secondary, or metastatic, brain cancer originates in another part of the body and then spreads to the brain. In brain metastasis, cancer cells break away from the primary tumor, enter the bloodstream or lymphatic system, travel to the brain and then form a new tumor. Some common primary cancer sources of brain metastasis include the lungs, breasts, skin (melanoma), kidneys and colon. Metastatic brain tumors are far more common than primary brain tumors.
Brain cancer causes
The exact causes of brain cancer are not fully understood. Through extensive research, scientists have determined that genetic mutations in healthy brain cells can lead to uncontrolled and abnormal cell growth, resulting in the formation of tumors. Overall, the causes of brain cancer are multifactorial and likely involve a combination of genetic, environmental and lifestyle factors.
Brain cancer risk factors
Most brain tumors are thought to occur sporadically. However, certain factors can increase the risk, such as exposure to ionizing radiation, a weakened immune system and a personal history of cancer. Certain rare inherited cancer syndromes are also associated with an elevated risk of brain cancer. These include:
- Neurofibromatosis types 1 and 2
- Tuberous sclerosis
- Lynch syndrome
- Li-Fraumeni syndrome
- von Hippel-Lindau disease
- Familial adenomatous polyposis
- Cowden syndrome
- Gorlin syndrome
Brain cancer symptoms
The early warning signs of brain cancer can vary widely depending on the type, size, grade and location of the tumor. Common symptoms include:
- Headaches – Persistent or worsening head pain or pressure, especially in the morning, which may be accompanied by nausea and vomiting unrelated to digestive issues
- Seizures – New-onset seizures or a change in the pattern of existing seizures
- Cognitive changes – Mental confusion, memory loss, impaired concentration or difficulty following simple commands
- Neurobehavioral symptoms – Changes in mood, personality or behavior
- Motor skill impairments – Weakness or numbness in the limbs, loss of balance, coordination problems or difficulty walking
- Vision changes – Blurred vision, double vision or loss of peripheral vision
- Speech difficulties – Trouble speaking, slurred speech or language problems
- Changes in sensation – Numbness and tingling in certain parts of the body
Persistent or worsening brain cancer symptoms should be promptly evaluated by a physician who can provide an accurate diagnosis. Early detection and intervention are crucial for effective management of brain cancer.
Brain cancer diagnostic testing
If a brain tumor is suspected based on the symptoms, a physician will typically perform a clinical assessment and order one or more diagnostic tests, such as:
- A neurological examination – This comprehensive exam may include checking the patient’s vision, hearing, balance, coordination, strength and reflexes. Although it cannot confirm the presence of a tumor, difficulty in one or more areas can provide important clues about the affected area of the brain.
- Imaging studies – Techniques such as magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and computed tomography (CT) can help the physician visualize the brain and identify abnormal growths or tumors.
- A biopsy – A small sample of tissue from the suspected tumor is removed for microscopic examination by a pathologist, who can identify cancerous cells.
- A genetic and molecular analysis – Advanced techniques, such as molecular profiling, may be used to analyze the genetic and molecular characteristics of the tumor cells, which can help guide treatment decisions.
Brain cancer types
After diagnosing a brain tumor, a pathologist will determine its type by microscopically examining the characteristics and behavior of the tumor cells. The types of brain cancer include:
- Mixed glioma
- Pituitary adenoma
Brain cancer treatment
Treatment for a brain tumor can vary depending on the type, size, grade and location of the tumor and whether it is cancerous. Common options include surgery, radiation therapy, chemotherapy, targeted therapy and immunotherapy.
If the tumor is small, benign and not causing symptoms, treatment might not be needed right away. Instead, a physician may suggest monitoring the tumor with MRI scans a few times a year. If the tumor grows more quickly than expected or begins causing symptoms, treatment may be considered at that point.
Frequently asked questions (FAQs) about brain cancer
The following FAQs-related articles provide additional information about brain cancer:
- What should I expect with brain cancer surgery?
- What are the risks of brain cancer surgery?
- Three things you should know about chemotherapy for brain cancer
- Questions to ask your brain cancer specialist
- Brain cancer statistics
- Three things you should know about a brain tumor
- What happens when cancer spreads to the brain?
- What is the most common type of brain tumor?
- Three brain tumor symptoms not to ignore
- What is a glioma?
- Are all gliomas malignant?
- Is a pituitary tumor considered brain cancer?
- What is a pituitary adenoma?
- What is the difference between a craniotomy and a craniectomy?
- Is a craniotomy my only option to treat my brain tumor?
- Are there alternative options to receiving an endonasal endoscopy for brain cancer?
- What should I expect with a craniectomy?
- What are the possible risks of a craniotomy?
- What is an endonasal endoscopy and why do I need it?
- What is recovery like after a craniectomy?
- What is the purpose of a craniotomy?
- What is a pituitary tumor?
- 10 important questions to ask before brain cancer surgery
- What is metastatic brain cancer?
- Who is most at risk for developing brain cancer?
- What causes paraneoplastic syndromes?
- Immunotherapy causing neurological issues
- What are the symptoms of end-stage brain cancer?
- What tests are done for brain cancer?
Benefit from world-class care at Moffitt Cancer Center
The multispecialty team in Moffitt’s renowned Neuro-Oncology Program provides comprehensive diagnostic and treatment services to patients with primary and metastatic brain tumors. Our robust portfolio of clinical trials provides our patients with unique opportunities to be among the first to benefit from promising new therapies while under the care of a dedicated treatment team. In addition to brain cancer, we also specialize in the management of other brain-related conditions, such as CNS lymphoma, meningeal carcinoma and neurofibromatosis.