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Couple taking to doctor about brain cancer risk factors

Brain cancer can be primary or secondary. Primary brain tumors originate in brain tissues, while secondary brain tumors develop in other tissues or organs—such as a breast or lung—and then spread to the brain. Known as metastasis, this process usually occurs after tumor cells enter the bloodstream or lymphatic system and circulate throughout the body to reach distant organs and tissues.

What causes brain cancer?

Scientists have established that secondary brain tumors arise from the spread of other types of cancer. Although they have not yet pinpointed the precise causes of primary brain tumors, they know how the cancer forms and have identified certain factors that may contribute to its growth.

Generally speaking, primary brain cancer results from genetic mutations in healthy brain cells. The mutations cause the cells to grow and divide much faster than normal and also prevent the cells from dying when their natural life cycle is complete. The rapid buildup of rogue cells then leads to the formation of a tumor.

Is brain cancer genetic?

While some brain tumors have a genetic component, most cases are believed to occur sporadically with no clear hereditary link. However, some relatively rare inherited genetic syndromes can predispose an individual to certain types of brain cancer, such as glioma. These include:

  • Neurofibromatosis type 1 (NF1)
  • Neurofibromatosis type 2 (NF2)
  • Li-Fraumeni syndrome
  • Tuberous sclerosis
  • von Hippel-Lindau syndrome

Additionally, some families have a genetic predisposition to glioma without having a specific syndrome.

The relationship between genetics and brain cancer is complex, and ongoing research is focused on identifying specific genetic factors that may influence its development. In most cases, brain cancer is not directly inherited but rather arises from a combination of genetic and environmental factors.

Brain cancer risk factors

Although the exact causes of primary brain cancer are not yet fully understood, researchers have identified several risk factors, which are traits that can make an individual more susceptible to developing brain and spinal cord tumors. That is not to say that all people who have one (or more) of these traits will develop cancer. Likewise, brain tumors can and do affect people who have no known risk factors.

Brain cancer risk factors that can be controlled  

Research suggests the following controllable factors can influence brain cancer risk:

  • Radiation therapy – Exposure to ionizing radiation (particularly when delivered to the head or neck region) may increase the likelihood of developing brain cancer.
  • Environmental exposures – There may be a link between brain cancer and frequent exposures to certain chemicals found in pesticides, herbicides, fertilizer, solvents, vinyl chloride and oil products, although more research on this subject is needed.

Brain cancer risk factors that cannot be controlled  

Most risk factors for brain cancer cannot be controlled. These include:

  • Age – While brain cancer can occur at any age, it is most frequently diagnosed in young children and older adults.
  • Biological gender – Generally speaking, men are more likely to develop brain cancer than women.
  • Family medical history – Approximately 5% of brain tumors can be linked to a familial syndrome.
  • Weakened immune system – Individuals who are immunocompromised due to a congenital or acquired factor, such as human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) or acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS), are more susceptible to certain types of brain cancer.

Frequently asked questions (FAQs) about brain cancer causes and risk factors 

The following FAQs-related article provides additional information about brain cancer causes and risk factors:

Benefit from world-class care at Moffitt Cancer Center

The specialists in Moffitt’s Neuro-Oncology Program take a comprehensive approach to diagnosing and treating brain cancer. Our team comprises experts from all areas of clinical and supportive care, including neurosurgeons, medical oncologists, neuropathologists, radiation oncologists, therapists and social workers. We collaborate to create an individualized treatment plan and ensure the best possible outcome and quality of life for each patient.

As a National Cancer Institute-designated Comprehensive Cancer Center, Moffitt is nationally recognized for our robust clinical trials program and ongoing research initiatives. We are proud to offer our patients unique opportunities to benefit from innovative and groundbreaking treatments before those options become widely available. Additionally, we provide genetic counseling services for individuals who would like to learn more about their familial risk factors for brain cancer.

If you would like to explore your brain cancer risk profile or seek treatment options with a specialist at Moffitt, you can request an appointment by calling 1-888-663-3488  or submitting a new patient registration form online. We do not require referrals.