If you, or someone you love, has been diagnosed with cancer, you may not know what to do. Here's a list of tips and ways to cope with a cancer diagnosis.

What is Brain Cancer?

Brain cancer is caused by abnormal growths of cells in the brain. Brain cancer may arise from primary brain cells - the cells that form other brain components - such as blood vessels and membranes. Brain cancer may also arise from the growth of cancerous cells that have traveled through the body and metastasized in the brain, which is called metastatic brain cancer.

Benign Versus Malignant Tumors:

While growths in the brain are often called "brain tumors," not all brain tumors are cancerous.

Benign brain tumors do not grow aggressively and cannot invade the brain tissue. Although a benign brain tumor is less dire than a malignant brain tumor, benign brain tumors can still cause problems as the tumor grows.

Malignant brain tumors grow and spread aggressively throughout the brain, taking up the nutrients, blood, and space of healthy cells. In the brain, a confined space, the rapid growth of a tumor can compress areas of the brain, causing a malfunction, and lead to increased intracranial pressure.

Primary Brain Tumors:

Cancer occurs when a type of cell mutates and loses it's characteristics. These mutated cells spread and multiply in abnormal ways. These mutated cells become a tumor (a mass of cells).

In the US, primary brain tumors and other nervous system cancers develop in approximately 22,000 people each year, according to the National Cancer Institute.

Cancers are named for the part of the body in which the cancer originates, so a primary brain tumor is a brain tumor that originated in the brain.

These common primary brain tumors are named after the part of the brain, or type of brain cell from which they originate:

  • Gliomas - glioma is an expansive term whose subtypes include astrocytomas, oligodendrogliomas, ependymomas, and choroid plexus papillomas.
  • Meningiomas - most meningiomas are benign.
  • Pituitary adenomas - these benign tumors do not spread to other parts of the body. The growth of pituitary adenomas can lead to vision and growth problems.
  • Vestibular schwannomas - vestibular schwannomas are benign and typically slow-growing tumors.
  • Primary CNS lymphomas - as primary CNS lymphoma grows, it usually tends not to spread beyond the central nervous systmem or the eye.
  • Primitive neuroectodermal tumors (medulloblastomas) - primitive neuroectodermal tumors include fairly common tumors called medulloblastomas and rarer tumores such as neuroblastomas.

Grading Primary Brain Tumors:

Brain tumors grow in various ways and differ in ability to cause symptoms. The National Cancer Institute has a grading system to classify and identify brain tumors:

Grade I: benign tissue; cells look very similar to normal brain cells and grow slowly.

Grade II: malignant tissue; cells look less normal than those in a Grade I tumor.

Grade III: malignant tissue contains cells that look highly different from normal cells; these cells actively grow. The abnormal cells are called "anaplastic."

Grade IV: malignant tissue has the most abnormal looking cells that tend to grow quickly.

Metastatic Brain Tumors:

Metastatic brain tumors are comprised of cancerous cells that have spread through the blood stream from tumors in another part of the body. The process of cancer spreading from one organ system to another is called "metastasis."

The most common cancers that spread via metastasis to the brain are cancers that begin in the:

These metastatic brain tumors are the most common type of brain tumor and occur more frequently than primary brain tumors. Blood-brain flow often dictates where the cancer cells, metastasized from other tumors, will lodge. Around 85% of these metastatic brain tumors arise in the cerebellum, the largest part of the brain. However, most metastatic brain tumors occur in multiple sites in the brain.

Causes of Brain Cancer:

As with many other tumors, the precise cause of many brain tumors is unknown. There are some risk factors proposed for primary brain tumors, but it is currently unknown as to whether these causes actually increase the risk for developing a primary brain tumor:

  • Genetic risk
  • HIV infection
  • Cigarette smoking
  • Environmental toxins
  • Head/neck radiation

Symptoms of Brain Tumors:

Not all brain tumors may create symptoms, the symptoms that do appear may be numerous and non-specific. Symptoms of both metastatic and primary brain tumors are similar in children, men, and women. The only way to receive an accurate diagnosis is to undergo diagnostic evaluation.

In many people, the onset of symptoms is slow and may be overlooked by the patient and their family members. Sometimes, however, the symptoms appear rapidly and may be more pronounced. Symptoms that are more pronounced may have to do with the lobe of the brain the tumor has affected.

Symptoms of brain tumors (if they occur) occur for the following reasons:

Some symptoms are caused by swelling in the brain due to the tumor or inflammation.

Symptoms are a result of the growth of the tumor pressing on other parts of the brain, stopping those parts of the brain from functioning normally.

The following are the most common symptoms of brain tumors:

  • Weakness
  • Difficulty walking
  • Clumsiness
  • Headaches
  • Seizures

Non-specific symptoms of brain tumors include the following:

  • Early morning nausea and vomiting.
  • Changes in vision.
  • Difficulty with speech.
  • Slow changes in emotional or intellectual abilities.
  • Change in mental status, concentration, memory, alertness, or attention.

Testing and Examination for Brain Tumors:

If, upon examination, a brain tumor is suspected, these tests may be performed:

  • Laboratory tests including: liver function tests, blood coagulation profile, blood analysis, electrolytes, and urine tests.
  • CT Scan of the brain, which shows more detail in three dimensions. Often, a contrast dye is injected into the bloodstream to better highlight any abnormalities.
  • MRI Scan of the brain - an MRI has a higher sensitivity for detecting a tumor; specifically, the relationship of the tumor to the brain coverings, the cerebrospinal fluid cavities, vascular structures, and relationship of the tumor to the brain.

If the CT or MRI show a brain tumor, the person will be referred to a neurosurgeon or a neuro-oncologist to confirm brain cancer. Confirmation of brain cancer is done through a biopsy of the tumor. There are many different approaches to obtaining a brain biopsy. Once the tumor is biopsied, it will be graded according to the NCI grade and treatment will begin.

Treatment of Brain Cancer:

As with every other condition, treatment for brain cancer is specialized for each patient and based upon the person's health status, additional medical problems, and age. Brain cancer treatment is also based upon the size, location, type, and grade of brain tumor.

Brain cancer treatment is complex, and treatment plans often involve a team of doctors, such as neurosurgeons, oncologists, radiation oncologists, and the primary health provider.

The most widely used treatments for brain cancers include surgery, radiation, chemotherapy, or some combination of the three.

Brain Cancer Prognosis:

There are many factors that influence brain cancer survival, including type of cancer, location, the age, overall health of the person, and whether it can be surgically removed (or reduced in size).

Survival rate greater than five years for primary brain tumors ranges from 10% to 32%, despite aggressive treatment, surgery, radiation, and chemotherapy.

Treatments, however, do prolong short-term survival and improve quality of life for some time.

Those with metastatic brain tumors die from their primary cancer rather than the brain lesions.

Related Resource Pages on Band Back Together:


Breast Cancer

Throat Cancer

Testicular Cancer

Skin Cancer

Cancer Hotlines:

American Cancer Society: 1-800-227-2345

National Cancer Institute: 1-800-4CANCER

Throat Cancer Resources:

American Cancer Society- saves lives and creates a world with less cancer and more birthdays by helping people stay well, helping people get well, by finding cures, and by fighting back. Tons of good links to types of cancer, how to prevent cancer and different types of cancer.

National Cancer Institute: coordinates the National Cancer Program, which conducts and supports research, training, health information dissemination, and other programs with respect to the cause, diagnosis, prevention, and treatment of cancer, rehabilitation from cancer, and the continuing care of cancer patients and the families of cancer patients. Website has links to clinical trials and a comprehensive list of cancer-treating drugs.

Stand Up To Cancer – new initiative created to accelerate groundbreaking cancer research that will get new therapies to patients quickly and save lives. SU2C’s goal is to bring together the best and the brightest in the cancer community, encouraging collaboration instead of competition. By galvanizing the entertainment industry, SU2C creates awareness and builds broad public support for this effort.

Relay For Life – Relay For Life is the signature fundraising event of the American Cancer Society. Links to local ways to get involved with Relay for Life.

National Brain Tumor Society - a nonprofit organization committed to finding a cure for brain tumors. We aggressively drive strategic research, advocate for public policies that meet the critical needs of the brain tumor community, and provide patient information.

American Brain Tumor Association - provides critical funding to researchers working toward breakthroughs in brain tumor diagnosis, treatment and care, with the ultimate goal of finding a cure.

The Brain Tumor Foundation - eats the whole patient by addressing their social, financial and emotional needs. Includes links to support groups.

Grey Matters: Brain Cancer Foundation - is to act as a catalyst for researchers world-wide to turn their attention to the area of brain cancer research and to award grants for leading industry research with the goal of finding the causes and cures for brain cancer and improving these patients' quality of life and outcomes. The foundation provides grants to nonprofit medical organizations in the United States that carry out brain cancer care and research.