A Patient's Guide for Brain Tumor
Understanding Brain Tumors
When a doctor tells you that you've been diagnosed with a brain tumor, the news can be life-changing. In the U.S., about 80,000 men, women and children are affected by tumors that start in the brain or spinal cord every year. Though the majority are noncancerous, some form of treatment may be required and many brain tumors are treatable, often without invasive surgery.
At Cedars-Sinai, you’ll be supported by a respected team of neuro-oncologists, neurosurgeons, neurologists and other specialists who are dedicated to the highest level of patient care.
Here's what you should know about the different kinds of tumors, treatment methods and what to expect from your journey through treatment, recovery and beyond.
Types of Brain Tumors
All brain tumors are abnormal growths of brain or central spine tissue that can disrupt proper brain function. This is how doctors categorize the different kinds:
- Benign: This tumor doesn’t contain aggressive cancer cells and, in most cases, doesn’t grow back after being removed. About two-thirds of all brain tumors are benign. Most benign brain tumors don't invade nearby tissue, but they can cause symptoms depending on their size and location in the brain.
- Malignant: This tumor contains cancer cells that typically spread to nearby tissue, but not always to other areas of the body. Malignant brain tumors may recur (grow back) after treatment.
- Primary: A primary brain tumor starts in the cells of the brain. It may spread to other parts of the brain or spine, but very rarely to other organs.
- Metastatic: A metastatic brain tumor is malignant and grows from cancer cells that came from another part of the body. This is also called a secondary tumor.
Common Symptoms of a Brain Tumor
Symptoms can depend on the tumor's location, size, rate of growth and stage (how advanced it is).
In general, brain tumor symptoms may include:
- Deep, dull headaches that recur often and persist without relief for long periods of time
- Difficulty walking, speaking or thinking
- Abnormal pulse and breathing rate
- Eyesight problems, including double vision
If you have what you think might be symptoms of a brain tumor, call your doctor immediately.
How Brain Tumors Are Diagnosed
Your doctor will ask about your health history and symptoms, and provide a physical and neurological exam. The neurological exam tests reflexes, muscle strength, eye and mouth movement, and coordination. You may be referred to an oncologist (cancer specialist), who will conduct additional tests:
CT scan: A computerized tomography (CT) scan uses a series of X-rays and computer analysis to make detailed pictures of the brain.
MRI: Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) is a magnetic device which makes detailed pictures of the brain.
Lumbar puncture: In this procedure, a small amount of cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) that surrounds the brain and spinal cord is removed and tested. This is performed with local anesthetic and is from the lower spine.
Positron emission tomography (PET) scan: For this test, a radioactive sugar is injected into the bloodstream, then a special camera is used to track where it is in the body. Since cancer cells use more sugar than normal cells, they’re more easily seen in the camera. This test is often given in combination with a CT scan.
Biopsy: In this surgical procedure, cells from the tumor are removed and tested. This is done to determine the type of tumor and how quickly it’s likely to grow.
Blood tests: These may be done to check for substances released by some tumors, known as tumor markers.
If you've already been diagnosed elsewhere, you may be seeking a second opinion to help you decide on a course of treatment with greater confidence and peace of mind.
Other reasons to get a second opinion include:
- You want to know every available treatment option.
- Your doctor couldn’t give a specific diagnosis or isn't sure what's wrong.
- You have a rare or unusual diagnosis.
- You think there may be other treatment options.
- Your doctor isn’t a specialist in your condition.
The Cedars-Sinai Department of Neurosurgery treats the full range of tumors affecting the brain and spinal cord, including those that are benign, malignant (cancerous), relatively common or rare.
Treatments range from conservative approaches, such as active surveillance and minimally invasive procedures, to more traditional brain surgeries. In order to decide on the best course of care for you, specialists from many disciplines may review and discuss your case at regularly held Tumor Board meetings.
If your doctor has recommended surgery for a brain tumor, you may be wondering what to expect and what you’ll need to do. Being prepared in advance can make things go more smoothly for you and your family.
After being treated for a brain tumor, your focus will shift to recovery and what comes next. Learn about the psychological services, support groups, educational conferences and other resources Cedars-Sinai offers.
Public conferences held by the Cedars-Sinai departments of Neurology and Neurosurgery, led by experienced neurosurgeons and other doctors, can help you learn more about the condition and meet other patients and caregivers.