What is Brain Cancer?
Brain cancer is a condition that results from the development of growths, or tumors, that are found in the brain. Brain tumors can be benign (non-cancerous) or malignant (cancerous). Cancerous tumors typically grow faster and more aggressively than benign tumors. These cancerous growths can spread to other brain and spinal cord areas, causing great harm to the impacted regions.
The rate at which brain tumors grow varies, but some can develop quite rapidly. In the United States, brain cancer is less common than other types of cancer such as breast, prostate, or skin cancer. Benign and malignant tumors should be treated as quickly as possible due to the impact they can have on bodily functions.
Types of Brain Cancer
There are two different types of brain cancer:
- Primary brain cancer originates and continues to form in the brain and typically does not spread to other body parts
- Secondary/metastasized brain cancer starts forming elsewhere in the body and then spreads to the brain. Most commonly, cancer will spread from areas such as the lungs, breasts, kidneys, colon, or skin.
Types of brain tumors
There are various types of brain tumors, including:
- Glioma are one of the more common types of primary brain tumor, accounting for 3 out of 10 cases of brain cancer. They begin forming in the glial cells surrounding nerve cells and supporting their healthy functionality.
- Glioblastoma , a subcategory of glioma, is a glioma that has received a World Health Organization (WHO) designation of grade 4, the most aggressive and fastest developing type of glioma
- Meningioma is overall the most common form of primary brain tumor. They form in the meninges, the membranes surrounding the spinal cord and brain. They typically grow quite slowly over the course of many years.
- Pituitary adenoma is a benign tumor that forms on the pituitary gland, which is a small structure found at the base of the brain. This gland is responsible for the regulation of hormone levels in the body. Though most pituitary adenomas grow slowly and are benign, this type of tumor may impact the quality of life, as they can secrete excess hormones into the body (secretory adenomas) or induce pressure on nearby structures (non-secretory adenomas).
- Acoustic neuroma (vestibular schwannoma) is a tumor that develops on the vestibular nerve that leads from the inner ear to the brain. This nerve is responsible for carrying impulses that aid in maintaining balance or equilibrium. Pressure from an acoustic neuroma can result in hearing loss or ear ringing and problems with balance. These tumors are non-cancerous and typically grow slowly. However, in rare instances, they can grow rapidly, impacting key functions due to pressure being placed on the brain.
- Craniopharyngiomas are rare, benign tumors that form close to the pituitary gland and typically develop in children, though they can also be found in older adults. Although they grow slowly, the pressure they exert on other structures in the brain can impact vision and growth, as well as hormone production and balance.
- Pineal tumors form in the pineal gland of your brain. This small gland located in the brain's center is responsible for regulating and producing the hormone melatonin. Pineal tumors are rare, most often affecting children and teens. Pineal tumors can be malignant or benign and should be treated by an experienced specialist based on the individual characteristics of the tumor.
Stages of Brain Cancer
Unlike some forms of cancer or tumors that can be found in the body, the progression, severity, and treatment options for primary brain tumors are categorized based on grade rather than a standard staging system. Staging systems indicate how far cancer has spread in the body, but primary brain tumors rarely spread beyond the brain/central nervous system.
The grade will be determined by your care specialist after an analysis of the tumor. The symptoms one may experience will depend on the type of tumor, its composition, rate of progression, and the assigned grade. The grade indicates its behavior, growth, unique characteristics, and severity.
Grades can range from 1 to 4 for certain types of brain tumors, such as gliomas, while other types of tumors like meningiomas are graded on a scale from 1 to 3. In any case, grade 1 indicates slow tumor growth, a low likelihood of spread, and cells that appear almost normal under a microscope. The highest grade indicates fast tumor growth and an increased probability of spreading to nearby areas. The cells will look very abnormal under a microscope, and dead tissue will be visible.
- Grade 1
- Growing slowly
- Unlikely to spread
- Cells appear almost normal in biopsy
- Surgical treatment is usually an option
- Grade 2
- Usually growing slowly
- Can sometimes spread to nearby areas
- Higher chance of returning after treatment
- Can return as a higher grade
- Grade 3
- Can grow more quickly
- Will sometimes spread to other regions of the brain
- Actively producing abnormal, cancerous cells
- Greater likelihood of returning as a higher grade
- Grade 4
- Fast growing
- Higher likelihood of spreading to nearby areas
- Cells reproducing appear very abnormal
- Visible presence of dead tissue (necrosis) in growth
Signs & Symptoms of Brain Cancer
The signs and symptoms of brain cancer can vary widely depending on the type of tumor, its location in the brain, rate of growth, and its current size. Many of the common symptoms associated with brain cancer may also be common to other conditions, and only a doctor will be able to provide a conclusive diagnosis. Learn more about diagnosis and treatment for brain cancer.
Brain cancer and tumor symptoms may include:
- Changes in behavior or personality
- Changes in vision
- Loss of hearing
- Memory loss
- Physical weakness
- Numbness or muscle paralysis
What Causes Brain Cancer?
Although the precise cause of brain cancer is still unknown, ongoing research is conducted within this field to advance our understanding of the best responses to this particular type of cancer. With the increasing frequency of brain cancer diagnoses in adults and children, malignant brain tumors now represent the most common cause of cancer-related deaths among adolescents and young adults ages 15 to 39.
Glioblastomas, a subset of gliomas, are particularly aggressive tumors where the cancerous cells can multiply quickly and are fed by large networks of blood vessels. NewYork-Presbyterian created the Rhodes Center for Glioblastoma to advance treatment methods for glioblastomas and is ranked among the best in the field. Visit Rhodes Center for Glioblastoma to learn more about NewYork-Presbyterian's top-tier program in neurological care.
Risk Factors for Brain Cancer
The risk factors for developing brain cancer can vary widely, and although a precise cause is still undetermined, certain genetic, environmental, and behavioral factors may increase your risk.
Heightened risk for brain cancer may exist due to the fullowing:
- Advanced age
- Certain hereditary and genetic conditions - A small percentage of brain tumors may be linked to genetic factors and family history
- Exposure to radiation - Including previous radiation treatments
- Exposure to certain chemicals – Exposure at the workplace or at home
- Race and Ethnicity - Studies show that white people have a higher chance of developing gliomas, whereas black people are more likely to develop meningioma
- Sex - Men have a higher chance of developing a brain tumor. However, certain types of brain tumors, such as meningiomas, are more likely to develop in women.
- Compromised immune system
- Previous head trauma