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A brain tumor is an abnormal mass of tissue that develops when cells grow and multiply uncontrollably. The brain is part of the central nervous system, which controls the body’s vital functions, including speech, movement and thought. As such, a tumor in the brain can disrupt these processes and impact the way a person speaks, moves or thinks.

Brain tumor types

A brain tumor can be classified as either a primary tumor or a metastatic tumor. Primary tumors originate in the brain’s cells, whereas metastatic brain tumors are tumors that developed in another part of the body and then spread (metastasized) to the brain. Also called "secondary tumors," metastatic tumors are named for where they originated (e.g., metastatic breast cancer).

Not every brain tumor is malignant (cancerous). While malignant brain tumors grow rapidly and can spread to other tissue, benign tumors do not contain cancer cells, are slow growing and typically do not spread to surrounding tissue.

There are more than 120 different types of tumors that can form in the brain or central nervous system. The various types are identified by the cells they originate in and how aggressively they grow.

Brain tumor diagnosis

Symptoms may cause someone to consult with a doctor, but other times, a person might not have had any symptoms prior to a brain tumor diagnosis. Diagnosing a brain tumor can be a complex process, but usually begins with neurological exams followed by imaging scans, such as an MRI (magnetic resonance imaging). Diagnosis then typically involves tissue analysis following a biopsy or surgery. Specific tests used to diagnose a brain tumor vary from patient to patient, depending on the tumor’s location and characteristics.

Brain tumor risk factors

Most brain tumors are not linked to a specific cause, but there are several factors that have been shown to increase a person’s risk for developing a brain tumor. It is important to note, however, that a person can have one or more risk factors and still never develop a brain tumor. Likewise, a person who has no risk factors at all can develop a tumor.

Radiation exposure

Radiation-induced tumors are rare and typically involve radiation therapy used for treating another condition, such as other cancers. For example, some people may have received radiation therapy to the brain as children for treating leukemia and then had a brain tumor develop years later (typically 10 to 15 years after the initial radiation exposure).

Family history

Most brain tumors do not run in families. In rare cases, however, people with brain tumors may have a family history of the condition – typically, these patients have familial cancer syndromes that occur at a young age. Some disorders linked with brain tumors include neurofibromatosis type 1 and 2, tuberous sclerosis, Von Hippel-Lindau disease and Li-Fraumeni syndrome.

Weakened immune system

A weakened immune system can be present at birth, or it may be caused by treatments for other conditions. People who have a weakened immune system have an increased risk for developing lymphomas of the brain or spinal cord.

There are also other environmental factors that some studies, but not others, have suggested may increase the risk for brain tumors, including cell phone use and exposure to vinyl chloride, petroleum products and other chemicals. Other possible risk factors that researchers agree do not have enough evidence to confirm a link with brain tumors include exposure to aspartame, certain viruses and electromagnetic fields from transformers and power lines.

Brain tumor treatment

Many individual factors influence brain tumor treatment, such as the patient’s age and overall health, as well as the tumor’s size, location and type. Sometimes, low-grade brain tumors that are slow growing can be monitored closely or fully removed with surgery alone. Higher-grade, aggressive tumors, on the other hand, may require more treatment than just surgery, such as radiation therapy, chemotherapy or targeted therapy.

Moffitt’s approach to brain tumors

At Moffitt Cancer Center, our Neuro-Oncology Program’s brain tumor team takes a comprehensive, individualized approach to treatment. Our multispecialty team includes experts in all areas of treatment – neurologists, medical oncologists, neurosurgeons, radiation oncologists, neuropathologists and other specialists. Together, this team collaborates to develop individualized treatment plans for every patient in order to provide the most effective therapy and highest possible quality of life.

To learn more about brain tumors and treatment at Moffitt Cancer Center, call 1-888-663-3488 or submit a new patient registration form online. Referrals are not required to schedule an appointment.