Brain cancer and what you need to know about the disease

Brain Health

by Karen Fink, MD, PhD

Jan 31, 2018

The brain is one of the most complex and central organs in the human body and is composed of more than 100 billion nerves. Without it, we wouldn’t be able to function or communicate properly. But what happens when cancer attacks the brain? How would you know and what steps would you need to take to treat it?

Here are some facts to consider when understanding brain tumors and brain cancer and how one can prepare for treatment options.

What Are Primary Brain Tumors?

Primary brain tumors occur when a cell in the brain develops a mutation and starts reproducing itself without control. Tumors are categorized based on the way the individual cells look under the microscope, and on the genetic changes present within the cells.

While not all brain tumors are cancerous, even non-cancerous (benign) brain tumors can become life-threatening. Grade I tumors, like meningiomas, can usually be removed and do not require further treatment. For higher grade tumors, the type of tumor determines the appropriate treatment. We have made significant strides toward improved survival for Grade II and Grade III tumors, which are usually diagnosed in adults.

Glioblastoma (Grade IV), is a severe brain cancer diagnosis and unfortunately, it is one of the most common brain tumors. After surgery for a glioblastoma, most patients receive treatment with both radiation therapy and chemotherapy.

Signs and Symptoms

The signs and symptoms of a brain tumor vary depending on the tumor’s size and on its location within the brain. Common symptoms include persistent headaches, problems with speech, short-term memory loss or changes in personality. Additional symptoms may include:

  • Seizures
  • Weakness or numbness on one side
  • Poor balance with falls
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Unusual Drowsiness
  • Large blind spots

After Diagnosis

The weight of a brain cancer diagnosis can leave patients feeling overwhelmed. The life-altering words “you have cancer” can be both defeating and confusing. Here are some steps to consider to help move forward after a cancer diagnosis.

1. Take a deep breath and educate yourself

Before making any quick decisions, give yourself time to process the diagnosis and information you’ve been given. Take a deep breath and start considering your options. However, take only as much time as is necessary, since the disease can rapidly progress.

Also, do your research so that you know what to expect after diagnosis — but be smart and careful on where you receive your information. Ask your physician for additional resources on your condition.

2. Align priorities

Take this time to decide what is important to you. Each patient’s fight against cancer is different — some may want standard treatments, alternative therapies or a combination of both. Get advice from family, friends and medical experts, but take into consideration what you think is the best for you.

3. Gather a support team

Having a support group of friends and family can help the process of moving forward much easier. Appoint someone as your wing-man, or caregiver, who can assist you to your doctor’s appointments or who can help you around the house.

Loved ones caring for someone with a brain tumor should also seek help and information from a neuro-oncologist when stepping into this new role.

As neuro-oncologists, we know what they face. We know what the family dynamics are, what the symptoms are likely to be and what to watch for. We know how to take care of seizures, which are a scary part of brain tumors that can happen. We can help them to differentiate what to be concerned about versus what not be concerned about.”

As a caregiver, it’s essential to take each day at a time and to surround yourself with a support group that will be there for additional help, including the medical experts and hospital staff where the patient receives care.

4. Know your treatment options

There are multiple treatment options to consider when battling brain cancer. The first treatment option is usually surgery, which is followed by radiation or chemotherapy — or sometimes both.

Clinical trials have provided optimism and hope to those facing a brain cancer diagnosis.

It’s really important to be in a center that has specialized neuro-oncologists and clinical trials.

Over the last 20 years, we’ve had a lot of clinical trials, and the most effective thing that was discovered is an oral chemotherapy drug called “temozolomide” which penetrates the blood-brain barrier, and when used in combination with radiation therapy, definitely improves survival. There are all kinds of clinical trials currently underway, with treatments involving new and existing medications and the newer immunological therapies.

It’s really important to be in a center that has specialized neuro-oncologists and clinical trials.

While clinical treatment options are determined, there are also supporting treatment options like integrative medicine that can help someone cope with a brain cancer diagnosis and its treatment. This can include practices such as meditation, yoga, music therapy or acupuncture.

For more information on brain cancer, find a physician on the medical staff at Baylor Scott & White Health specializing in cancer care.

About the Author

Dr. Karen Fink is a neurologist on the medical staff at Baylor University Medical Center at Dallas. She received her medical degree from Mayo Clinic School of Medicine and has been in practice for more than 20 years.

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