Brain Tumors: Just the Facts

Director, Neuro-Oncology Program
Thursday, May 7, 2015 - 9:33am

For one man, the first sign came when he mixed up words while ordering lunch in a restaurant. For a little girl, it began with a loss of balance and changes in hearing. In both cases, the mysterious symptoms were caused by a brain tumor.

Primary brain tumors (tumors that begin in the brain) are relatively rare. There are more than 120 different kinds, and they can be either malignant (cancerous) or benign (not cancerous).

  • A malignant brain tumor is likely to grow rapidly and invade healthy brain tissue nearby; it can be life-threatening. Many malignant brain tumors are treatable, and new therapies are enabling patients to live longer while preserving their quality of life.
  • A benign brain tumor does not contain cancer cells. It rarely invades nearby tissue or spreads to other parts of the body, and usually does not grow back after it is removed. However, even a benign brain tumor can be lethal if it is not treated, because it is growing inside a closed space (the skull) and can press on the brain. Many benign brain tumors are curable.

Symptoms vary, depending on what part of the brain is affected, but they can include:

  • Persistent daily headaches
  • Changes in speech, vision, or hearing
  • Problems in balancing or walking
  • Changes in mood, personality, or ability to concentrate
  • Problems with memory or confusion
  • Seizures, convulsions
  • Numbness, weakness, or tingling in the arms or legs

Some symptoms are similar to those of a stroke. That’s why it’s important to remember that when seizures occur for the first time in young people or middle-aged adults, they are more likely to be caused by a brain tumor than a stroke.

When someone is diagnosed with a brain tumor, it is often helpful to get a second opinion to confirm the diagnosis and understand all the treatment options. In some cases, advanced techniques that are not available everywhere can be used successfully to treat brain tumors that were considered untreatable in the past.

Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) in the operating room increases safety and effectiveness by enabling surgeons to determine during surgery whether the entire tumor has been removed — and to distinguish between the tumor and healthy brain tissue, which can look alike to the naked eye.

RPCI also offers noninvasive and minimally invasive treatments, including Gamma Knife radiosurgery, which uses gamma ray beams to destroy brain tumors without the need to open the skull, and endonasal surgery, which reaches skull base tumors through the nose without exposing the brain.

Eligible patients may also enroll in clinical trials of new and promising therapies for malignant brain tumors.

For more information about Roswell Park’s Neuro-Oncology program and treatments for brain tumors, call 1-877-ASK-RPCI (1-877-275-7724) or email askrpci@roswellpark.org.