Brain Cancer

What is cancer of the brain?

Cancer of the brain is a malignant growth (tumor) in or on your brain. Cancers that start in the brain are called primary brain cancers. Cancers that start in another part of the body and spread to the brain are called secondary brain cancers or metastatic brain cancer. Secondary cancer is much more common than primary brain tumors. Metastatic brain cancer most often spreads from the lung, breast, kidney, or skin (melanoma).

Brain cancers are always serious because as they grow they press on and destroy healthy brain tissue.

How does it occur?

The cause of primary brain cancer is not known.

What are the symptoms?

Increased pressure within the skull causes:

  • headache (most often during the night)

  • nausea and vomiting

  • vision problems such as double vision

  • trouble thinking and speaking clearly

  • drowsiness.

Depending on where the tumor is in the brain, it also may cause:

  • weakness on one side of the body

  • dizziness or loss of balance

  • mood swings

  • seizures.

How is it diagnosed?

Your health care provider will examine you and ask about your symptoms. You may have a neurological exam, which involves checking eye movements, reflexes, hearing, balance, coordination, touch, taste, smell, facial muscle movement, tongue movement, head movement, and mental status. You may need special tests to show the size, shape, and location of the tumor within your brain. Tests may include an x-ray, CT scan (computed tomography), PET (positron emission tomography) scan, or MRI (magnetic resonance imaging).

A biopsy may be done to confirm that the tumor is cancer and to find out what type of cells are involved. To do a biopsy, a surgeon will remove a small sample of tumor tissue from your brain. The tissue will then be examined under a microscope.

How is it treated?

Treatment depends on your diagnosis. Surgery is the most common treatment of primary adult brain tumors. To take out the cancer from the brain, a doctor will cut a part of the bone from the skull to get to the brain. This operation is called a craniotomy. After the doctor removes the cancer, the bone will be put back or a piece of metal or a special fabric will be used to cover the opening in the skull.

Radiation therapy uses x-rays to kill cancer cells from the outside and shrink tumors (external-beam radiation therapy). Radiation therapy may also be used by putting radioisotopes through thin plastic tubes into the tumor to kill cancer cells from the inside (internal radiation therapy).

Chemotherapy uses drugs to kill cancer cells. Chemotherapy may be taken by pill, or it may be put into the body by a needle in the vein or muscle. Hormone therapy uses hormones to stop the cancer cells from growing. Biological therapy stimulates or restores the ability of your immune system to fight disease.

How can I take care of myself?

  • Tell your health care provider about headaches, vision problems, or any other symptoms that have started recently or are getting worse.

  • Discuss your cancer treatment options with your provider so you understand them.

  • Tell your provider if your treatment causes discomfort. Relief may be available.

  • If possible, join a support group for cancer patients to help you during your illness.

  • Maintain a hopeful and positive outlook throughout your treatment and recovery.

  • Contact national and local self-help organizations such as:

American Cancer Society
1599 Clifton Road, NE
Atlanta, Georgia 30329
800-ACS-2345 (800-227-2345)

AMC Cancer Research Center and Foundation

Cancer Information Service
800-4-CANCER (800-422-6237)