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Brain Tumor Causes, Symptoms, and Treatments

Brain tumors, both malignant and benign, can affect individuals of all ages. Regardless of their cancer status, these tumors can disrupt brain function if they grow and compress surrounding tissues.

When you come to us for brain cancer treatment, you'll meet caring and knowledgeable doctors, nurses, and others.

Our neuro-oncologists work with a diverse team of cancer experts works together to design an ideal treatment plan targeted to each patient.

Contact the Neuro-Oncology Program to Make an Appointment

To learn more about brain and nervous system cancer or to make an appointment, you can:

Fill out our online contact form.

What Is a Brain Tumor?

A brain tumor is a mass of abnormal cells in the brain. As tumors get bigger, they can impair how the brain functions and cause mental and physical symptoms.

Some brain tumors are easy to treat. Others are fatal, but treatments can help people live longer.

What are the types of brain tumors?

There are two main types of all tumors:

  • Benign tumors are noncancerous and slow-growing. They rarely spread to other parts of the brain. Surgeons often remove this type of tumor.
  • Malignant tumors are cancers. They grow quickly, often invading the surrounding brain and nerve tissue.

There are many types of brain and spine tumors. Malignant CNS tumors include both primary and secondary tumors:

These cancerous tumors start in the brain and rarely spread to other parts of the body.

The most common primary brain tumors are gliomas.

Gliomas are a group of tumors that arise from the glial cells.

There are many types of glial cells — all with different jobs to keep the brain working properly. But their main job is to support and protect the neurons.

Gliomas can grow slowly, moderately, or quickly.

Low-grade, or slow-growing, gliomas are more common in children, while high-grade are more common in older adults.

Fast-growing gliomas are harder to treat.

Besides their growth rate, prognosis and treatment depend on pinpointing molecular changes with the tumor cells. This lets us tailor treatment to each person's tumor subtype.

Glioblastoma, an aggressive cancer that needs intense treatment, is the most common subtype of glioma.

With these types of tumors, cancer starts in another part of the body and spreads to the brain.

Any cancer can spread to the brain, spinal cord, or both.

But some cancers are more likely to spread to the brain such as:

  • Breast.
  • Colon or rectal.
  • Kidney.
  • Lung.
  • Skin.

More rarely, cancers can spread to the fluid or membranes that surround the brain and spinal cord. Doctors call this leptomeningeal disease.

What causes brain tumors?

Genetic changes in normal cells can cause the cells to grow out of control.

In most cases, these gene changes happen in people with no family history of brain tumors. They tend to occur as people age.

But having a close family member, like a sibling or parent, who's had a brain tumor increases a person's risk.

What are brain tumor risk factors?

Though the overall risk of a brain tumor is low, some factors can put you more at risk.

  • Age. Some types of brain tumors are more common in kids. Others are more common in older adults. But brain tumors can occur at any age.
  • Exposure to toxic chemicals. The proof that links industrial chemicals to an increased risk of brain tumors varies by study. But it's vital to be aware of your exposure levels.
  • Gender. Men are more at risk of a brain tumor than women.
  • Genetics. Brain tumors are more common in people whose close relative, such as a grandparent, aunt, uncle, or parent, had a brain tumor.
  • Inherited conditions. Brain tumors are more common in people who have certain genetic conditions. These include Turcot syndrome, Li-Fraumeni syndrome, neurofibromatosis, nevoid basal cell carcinoma syndrome, von Hippel-Lindau disease, and tuberous sclerosis.
  • Radiation. Prior radiation treatments, especially to the head or neck, slightly increase the risk of a brain tumor.

How to prevent brain tumors

Most brain tumors you can't prevent.

But smoking increases the risk of other cancers, especially lung cancers. So, quitting smoking may prevent cancer that starts elsewhere in the body and spreads to the brain.

Brain Tumor Symptoms and Diagnosis

What are the signs and symptoms of brain tumors?

Symptoms of a brain tumor include:

  • Changes in memory, reasoning, or other brain functions.
  • Confusion.
  • Dizziness or balance issues.
  • Fatigue.
  • Gradual loss of movement or feeling in a limb.
  • Headaches that become more intense or frequent over time.
  • Hearing problems.
  • Poor coordination.
  • Speech issues, such as jumbling words.
  • Seizures.
  • Throwing up.
  • Vision issues, such as blurred or double vision.
  • Weakness.

How do doctors diagnose brain tumors?

To properly treat a primary brain tumor, it's crucial to have an accurate diagnosis.

Your doctor will first talk to you about your symptoms. Then they'll ask you to do certain tasks to test your vision and balance to assess brain function.

If the doctor suspects a brain tumor based on this assessment, they'll order a brain imaging scan, most often an MRI. We use CT, PET, and MRI scans to identify a brain tumor as well as determine its size, location, and grade.

Abnormal tumor tissue shows up differently on these images than normal tissue. Doctors may also be able to learn if a tumor is benign, slow-growing, or aggressive based on MRI images.

The doctor may also order blood tests to look for proteins created by the tumor, that may show the tumor type.

If the care team can't confirm the tumor type from imaging and blood tests, they'll need to test the tumor itself.

They can do a biopsy to get a tissue sample to send to the lab for testing. Or they can send a piece of the tumor to the lab after they surgically remove it.

Genetic testing of a tumor sample can also provide further details about a tumor's molecular makeup. This can help guide treatment.

What Are the Treatment Options for Brain Tumors?

For benign and slow-growing brain tumors, your doctor may just keep an eye on them. But most brain cancers are aggressive — and require aggressive treatments to slow down their growth.

The first treatment for a brain tumor is usually surgery. The goal of brain tumor surgery is to remove as much of the tumor as possible without causing harm to normal tissue. Surgery can offer a chance to study the tumor, determine its type, assess its malignancy, understand its growth drivers, and plan treatment.

Doctors often combine surgery, radiation, and chemotherapy to treat brain cancer.

Learn more about treatment options for brain and nervous system cancer.

Brain Tumor Survival Rate

The survival rates vary by slow-growing and fast-growing brain tumors and molecular markers within the tumor.

UPMC Hillman Cancer Center doctors and researchers are leading trials and working with others across the country to improve survival rates.

Why Choose UPMC Hillman Cancer Center for Brain Tumor Care?

  • Our doctors are leading innovative trials — and testing promising new treatments — to help people live longer and fuller lives. Their involvement in National Institutes of Health and other research networks means you have access to brain tumor trials across the country.
  • Our team of a care navigator, social worker, and dietician supports you in managing the anxiety and challenges of a cancer diagnosis. Additionally, we provide a holistic program for symptom and treatment side effect management.
  • UPMC boasts the largest neurosurgery program in the U.S. and offers cutting-edge surgeries that most centers don't have.
  • We also offer advanced genetic testing, targeted therapies, and immunotherapies. All of these allow us to treat brain tumors more precisely.
  • We offer complete, seamless, patient-centered care. You can get cutting-edge cancer treatments at our flagship center in Pittsburgh. Or you can get the same standard of care at more than 70 sites throughout Pennsylvania, Maryland, New York, and Ohio.
  • UPMC boasts the largest neurosurgery program in the U.S. and offers cutting-edge surgeries that most centers don't have.