Signs of Brain Cancer and Treatment Options

The likelihood of developing brain cancer is less than 1%. However, it is estimated that more than 24,000 adults in the United States will be diagnosed this year with primary tumors of the brain and spinal cord.

Brain tumors (gliomas and non- gliomas) make up 90% of all primary central nervous system tumors. However, there also are brain metastases – when cancer begins somewhere else in the body and spreads to the brain. Common cancers that spread to the brain include bladder, breast, kidney, and lung cancers. In addition, leukemia, lymphoma, and melanoma also often metastasize to the brain.

Gliomas are graded on how aggressive the tumor may be. Higher grade gliomas usually are more aggressive and grow quickly.

The American Cancer Society lists brain cancer as the 10th-leading cause of death. Still, the 5-year survival rate for brain cancer is 36%, and the 10-year survival rate is about 30%.

Signs of Brain Cancer

Most often, symptoms are the first indication of brain cancer. An internist or a neurologist generally are the first to diagnosis cancer. The most prevalent brain cancer signs and symptoms are:

  • Altered perception of touch or pressure
  • Changes in the ability to walk or achieve daily activities
  • Changes in speech, hearing, memory, or emotions
  • Difficulty swallowing, facial weakness, or numbness
  • Drowsiness
  • Fatigue
  • Headaches
  • Inability to look upward
  • Lactation and altered menstrual periods
  • Loss of balance and fine motor skills
  • Loss of initiative, muscle weakness, sluggishness
  • Memory problems
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Partial or complete loss of vision
  • Personality or memory changes
  • Seizures
  • Sleep problems

Magnetic resonance imaging is used to diagnose a brain tumor. If the MRI shows a tumor, a biopsy or surgery will determine the type of tumor.

After an MRI, the doctor may recommend more tests, like a computed tomography (CT) scan, a positron emission tomography (PET) scan, a cerebral angiogram, or a lumbar puncture (spinal tap).

Treatments for Brain Cancer

A multidisciplinary team – a collection of different doctors – works together on the patient’s brain cancer treatment plan. Options depend on several factors:

  • Grade and size and of tumor
  • If the tumor putting pressure
  • on the brain
  • If cancer has spread
  • Patient preferences and
  • overall health
  • Potential side effects

During treatment, palliative care will focus on improving how you feel. This type of care manages symptoms with non-medical needs. Palliative care includes pain, depression, shortness of breath, fatigue, constipation, nausea, loss of appetite, difficulty sleeping, and anxiety. Taking care of these issues will help improve the quality of life.

Supportive care for brain tumor patients includes corticosteroids – drugs to decrease swelling in the brain – and anti-seizure medicines. Corticosteroids can lessen pain from the swelling and improve neurological symptoms.

Surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation are the most common conventional regimens used to treat brain cancer. However, targeted therapy continues to be researched and implemented in some cases. This type of therapy targets specific genes and proteins to block the growth and spread of tumor cells.

Side Effects of Brain Cancer

Your health care provider will work on a care plan for post-treatment. Knowing that a tumor and subsequent treatment can affect brain functions, your cognitive and functional abilities should be tested.

These evaluations could identify situations when specific therapies would be helpful. Options for rehabilitative treatment include:

  • Behavioral testing
  • (neuropsychological)
  • Counseling with a social worker
  • Medications to enhance memory
  • Medications to reduce fatigue
  • Occupational therapy
  • Speech therapy

A primary objective of follow-up care is to ensure there isn’t a recurrence of brain cancer. Undetected tumor cells may increase over time; testing checks to safeguard against a repeat of the tumor.


The central nervous system (CNS) – the brain and spinal column – controls vital functions including body movements, speech, and thought. When cancer strikes the CNS, it can have life-altering affects.

While it is unlikely – less than 1% – that you will develop brain cancer, being diagnosed with a brain tumor is shocking. It is essential to get a specialist’s opinion. From there, your health care team will help guide you on treatment options.

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