Each day, about 25 Canadians are diagnosed with brain tumours, according to the Canadian Cancer Society.
May is Brain Tumour Awareness Month. Neuro-oncologists Dr. James Perry and Dr. Sarah Ironside share four things you should know about brain tumours.
Malignant versus non-malignant
Brain tumours are made up of collections of abnormal cells. The speed at which the cells divide and mutate is what makes the tumour malignant (cancerous) or non-malignant. Genetically unstable tumours, in which the cells mutate more and quicker, are more aggressive and therefore are deemed malignant. These tumours are more likely to invade surrounding tissues or spread, and make up about 40 per cent of primary brain tumours (tumours that start in the brain).
About 60 per cent of primary brain tumours are non-malignant. In these tumours, the cells divide more slowly and have less genetic mutation with each cell division.
“But most tumours in the brain, even if slow-growing, might be treated with surgery, chemotherapy or radiation or a combination, so non-malignant tumours that are growing are dangerous too,” said Dr. Perry.
There are upwards of 300 types and subtypes of brain tumours, classified by the way that they divide and where they are in the brain.
Brain metastases – cancer that has spread to the brain from other parts of the body – is 20 times more common than primary brain tumours.
The doctors and pathologists look at images of the brain and the cells that are removed during surgery to determine what kind of tumour it is.
Know these symptoms and signs
Seizures are the most common symptom of a brain tumour in adults.
“A seizure is what typically brings someone to seek medical attention,” said Dr. Ironside.
Other symptoms include:
- Severe, unrelenting headache, often accompanied by nausea or vomiting.
- Vision changes
- Behaviour changes
Anyone experiencing the above symptoms should seek medical attention. While these symptoms don’t necessarily mean a tumour is involved, they can indicate other health issues and should be investigated by your healthcare team.
Symptoms of brain tumours in kids and teens are different than in adults. For more information, check out Head Smart.
Age increases risk
As we age, it increases our risk for developing a brain tumour.
Prior radiation to the head is the main known risk factor.
Contrary to popular belief, “family history, lifestyle choices, cellphone usage — none of those have been found to affect risk,” said Dr. Perry.
And while different types of brain tumours affect men and women more commonly, the overall risk between sexes is the same.
Many brain tumours respond well to treatment
Surgery, chemotherapy and radiation are all used to manage brain tumours.
There are also new treatments being tested with clinical trials and new technologies being developed to provide new and better ways to treat both primary and secondary tumours in the brain, Dr. Ironside said.
“The Gamma Knife Icon is now being used for brain metastases, and focused ultrasound and the MR-Linac are all new technologies that show promise in treating this disease,” she said. “And even more research is needed so that we can find a cure for these often aggressive tumours.”