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Brain cancer is cancer that begins in the brain although some people refer to brain cancer as any cancer in the brain, even metastatic cancer. There are a number of types of brain cancer:
Primary brain cancers are made of many different types of brain cells. They originate in the brain which makes them primary brain cancers. These include gliomas, meningiomas, vestibular schwannomas, astrocytomas and many others. They are named after the part of the brain or the cells they come from.
Metastatic brain cancer is the most common type of brain tumor. By histology, they do not represent brain cancer at all but are representative of the area of the body they came from, such as breast cancer.
The exact cause of brain cancer is not known. There are genetic factors, environmental toxins, HIV infections, radiation to the head and cigarette smoking as factors linking to brain cancer.
Not every brain tumor causes symptoms; some are only found at autopsy. The symptoms of brain cancer are many but they also mimic the symptoms of other diseases. The main symptoms are those caused by the tumor encroaching on other aspects of the brain, while others are caused by swelling and inflammation of the brain tissue. The main symptoms include weakness, headache, difficulty walking and seizures. Nonspecific symptoms include altered mental status, nausea, visual changes, vomiting, speech problems, and changes in intellectual capacity. The symptoms are often gradual and aren’t noticed easily. Some are of sudden onset and can act as though the person is having a stroke.
Headaches are thought to be very common in brain cancer but they don’t often show up until late in the course of the disease. If the headache pattern changes, it may be time to see a doctor urgently. The same is true if you get seizures, sudden visual changes, changes in mental status, changes in behavior or personality, speech changes, difficulty walking, nausea or vomiting, and sudden onset of fever.
In most cases, you’ll have a CT scan of the head to look at brain tissue. A dye will be used to highlight the cancer on the scan. An MRI scan is being increasingly used for patients with suspected brain tumors. MRIs show better sensitivity when it comes to brain tumors. Skull x-rays are not used anymore since CT scan and MRI scans have been in wide use. If a brain tumor has shown up on CT or MRI, you will be referred to an oncologist, even if it isn’t exactly cancer.
The next step is to get a biopsy in an open brain biopsy. Usually the entire tumor is removed as part of the biopsy. If the surgeon is unable to remove the entire tumor, only a small portion is removed. Stereotactic surgery is used in some cases, utilizing a CT scan or MRI scan in order to identify the exact location of the tumorous tissue. The pathologist then examines the tissue under the microscope using stains.
The treatment of a brain tumor depends on its size, location, type of tumor, the person’s age and their general health. The treatment is usually complex and involves radiotherapy and surgery. Chemotherapy is less used in brain cancer than in other cancers. Surgery is usually done first unless the doctors want to shrink the tumor using radiotherapy. If the tumor is benign, removing the entirety of the tumor can really resolve the symptoms. Steroid drugs and anticonvulsants are given around the time of surgery in order to get rid of possible side effects of surgery. A shunt is sometimes used to get rid of fluid around the brain.
Radiotherapy can shrink or get rid of brain cancer. Brain tumors are highly responsive to radiotherapy. It can only get rid of cells that are in its direct path, however.
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