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Brain Cancer: What You Need to Know

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Brain cancer is rare but serious. Researchers estimate that more than 18,000 adults in the United States will die from cancerous brain tumors this year alone.

May is Brain Cancer Awareness Month, so it’s a good time to learn important facts about brain tumors and how they are treated at the O'Neal Comprehensive Cancer Center at UAB.

A brain tumor is a mass of unnecessary cells growing in the brain or central spine. There are two basic types of brain tumors: cancerous (malignant) and non-cancerous (benign). Benign brain tumors are much more common and almost always treatable.

Malignant Brain Tumors

  • Primary brain tumors are specific types of masses or growths of abnormal cells that start in the brain and quickly spread to surrounding tissue. They account for only about 1.4% of all new cancer cases in the United States.
  • Most malignant brain tumors are secondary tumors. They form when cancer in another part of the body – such as the breast, lung, or skin – spreads to the brain. Secondary brain tumors are 3-5 times more common than primary brain tumors.
  • Glioblastoma (GBM) is an aggressive tumor that can quickly spread throughout the brain. It does not spread beyond the brain or nervous system in most cases.

Benign Brain Tumors

  • Benign brain tumors are formed when a group of cells, usually from nerve tissue or blood vessels, develop into a mass. They do not contain cancer cells, and most have clear borders, meaning that they do not spread to surrounding tissue.
  • Benign brain tumors usually grow slowly and rarely become cancerous. Most can be removed and usually do not return. Even non-cancerous tumors can be dangerous, though, since they can damage healthy brain cells.
  • Benign tumors are almost always treatable. Treatments include surgery and radiation, similar to treatments for cancerous brain tumors, though chemotherapy is rarely used.

Symptoms
Brain tumors usually don’t have obvious symptoms. The following symptoms are not necessarily signs of brain cancer, but people with brain tumors often have these symptoms:

  • Morning headaches, or headaches that end after vomiting
  • Vision and hearing problems
  • Difficulty speaking or understanding what others are saying
  • Short-term memory loss
  • Changes in behavior, personality, or mood
  • Loss of mental focus
  • Seizures
  • Difficulty walking, loss of balance
  • Weakness
  • Constant sleepiness or extreme drop in activity level

By the Numbers

  • Researchers estimate that more than 18,000 adults in the United States will die in 2022 from cancerous primary brain tumors and central nervous system tumors.
  • A person’s chances of developing this type of tumor in his or her lifetime is less than 1%.
  • Men are more likely than women to develop a brain tumor. Certain types of brain tumors, such as meningioma, are more common in women.
  • Brain tumors can occur at any age. They are one of the most common cancers diagnosed in children from birth to age 14, but the average age of diagnosis is 59.
  • Most people diagnosed with a primary brain tumor do not have any known risk factors. People who’ve been exposed to radiation therapy used to treat cancer, or radiation caused by atomic bombs, may have an increased risk of developing certain types of brain tumors.
  • Rare genetic disorders may increase the risk of developing a brain tumor, but there is little evidence that brain cancer runs in families.
  • The five-year survival rate for people in the United States with a cancerous brain or central nervous system tumor is almost 36%. The 10-year survival rate is almost 31%.
  • Age is a factor in survival rates. The five-year survival rate for people under age 15 is almost 75%. For people age 15-39, the five-year survival rate is almost 72%.

Treatment

The O’Neal Comprehensive Cancer Center at UAB (OCCC) is Alabama’s only cancer center designated by the National Cancer Institute and a national leader in cancer research. It provides the latest research-based care, including immunotherapy, gene therapies, and cancer stem cell-targeted therapies.

Specialized treatments available at the OCCC include:

  • Proton beam therapy (PBT), which uses proton particles to focus radiation on the tumor site. The newest type of PBT, called “pencil beam scanning”, reduces damage to nearby healthy tissue.
  • Image-guided surgery for benign and malignant brain tumors allows for safe and complete removal of tumor material without damaging normal brain tissue.
  • Surgery performed while the patient is awake is used for certain areas of the brain and helps the surgeon remove as much of the tumor as possible in functionally important areas of the brain. This method also reduces the risk of problems after surgery.
  • Fluorescence-guided surgery for malignant brain tumors, which makes tumor cells easier to see during the procedure, gives surgeons the best chance of removing the greatest number of cancer cells.

Research

Cancer specialists at the OCCC conduct research to better understand brain cancer and find new treatments. Current research studies are focused on new versions of existing cancer drugs, new combinations of medications to treat tumors, weight loss and diet plans for cancer survivors, new surgical methods, and ways to get the greatest possible benefit from certain radiation therapies. The OCCC participates in the Glioblastoma Therapeutics Network, in cooperation with the Translational Genomics Research Institute, to develop new or improved treatments for glioblastoma. These studies, along with others being conducted elsewhere, may give OCCC patients access to advanced treatments not offered at most other medical centers.