September 23, 2014
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Cancer

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Brain Cancer

(Cancer of the Brain, Brain Tumours)

The Facts on Brain Cancer

Brain cancer is a tumour or cancerous growth in the brain. A tumour, whether in your brain or elsewhere, is a mass of cells that reproduce themselves in an uncontrolled way. Tumours can be either benign or malignant.

Benign brain tumours are abnormal collections of cells that reproduce slowly and usually remain separate from the surrounding normal brain. They grow slowly, do not spread to other parts of the brain and can usually be removed more easily than malignant tumours. Malignant tumours reproduce and grow quickly. Their borders are hard to distinguish from the normal brain around them. That is why it is hard to remove them completely without damaging the surrounding brain.

Both benign and malignant tumours are further broken up into different types according to the kind of cell from which the tumour develops.

Benign tumours can be divided into the following:

  • chordomas: starting in embryonic cells in the spine or base of the skull nerve
  • hemangioblastomas: starting in the blood vessels
  • meningiomas: starting in the membrane covering the brain
  • osteomas: in the skull bones
  • pinealomas: in the pineal gland
  • pituitary adenomas: in the pituitary gland
  • schwannomas: in the cells that wrap around nerves

There are also some tumour types that can be benign in some cases or malignant in others, such as meningiomas or germ cell tumours.

This article focuses on the malignant (cancerous) brain tumours.

Brain cancers are relatively rare, but they are often deadly. The most common malignant types are called gliomas, where cells called glia (cells which help support the nerve cells) become cancerous. Glioblastoma multiforme is the most common of the gliomas. Glioblastoma multiforme and anaplastic astrocytoma are fast-growing gliomas. Oligodendroglioma, another type of glioma, is also rare, but is most often found in adults. Gliomas make up between 50% to 60% of all brain tumours (malignant and benign) in both children and adults combined.

Medullablastoma, which grows from the cells of the medulla at the base of the brain, is the most common type of brain cancer in children. It usually affects children before puberty.

Finally, sarcoma and adenocarcinoma are extremely uncommon types of brain tumour.

Causes of Brain Cancer

The exact cause of cancer is unknown. Brain cancer that originates in the brain is called a primary brain tumour. It can spread and destroy nearby parts of the brain. Cancers of the breast, lung, skin, or blood cells (leukemia or lymphoma) can also spread (metastasize) to the brain, causing metastatic brain cancer. These groups of cancer cells can then grow in a single area or in different parts of the brain.

Risk factors include:

  • previous radiation to the head
  • immunosuppression (e.g., taking medication to suppress the immune system, HIV/AIDS)
  • exposure to vinyl chloride (a chemical used in making plastic)




Symptoms and Complications of Brain Cancer

Brain cancer causes symptoms when it pushes on the brain or destroys brain tissue. Symptoms depend on the size and location of the tumour as well as how quickly it grows.

Although headaches are often a symptom of brain cancer, it is important to remember that most headaches are due to less serious conditions such as migraine or tension, not cancer. Headaches caused by a brain tumour are often severe, associated with nausea and vomiting and are usually worse in the morning. They can last for extended periods of time or may "come and go."

Other symptoms include:

  • dizziness
  • vision changes (such as double vision)
  • coordination problems
  • weakness or numbness on one side of the body
  • seizures
  • changes in mood, senses, personality, or feelings
  • memory problems
  • confusion or trouble concentrating

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