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Facts about Brain Tumors

A brain tumor diagnosis can feel overwhelming, but patients have varying experiences, depending on the type, size, and growth rate of the tumor. Because brain tumors can be extremely complex and may affect multiple systems in the body, they require comprehensive, multidisciplinary care.

The complicated nature of brain tumors leads to many misconceptions. Below, UTHealth Houston Neurosciences neurosurgeon Dr. Krish Vigneswaran provides accurate and helpful information on the symptoms, causes, and treatment of these tumors.

Fact #1: Brain tumor patients have various symptoms.

Each person who is diagnosed with a brain tumor will have a different set of symptoms. These symptoms may include changes in sensation, speech, vision, or hearing. A patient may also experience weakness, headaches, nausea, vomiting, seizures, or balance difficulties.

If you are experiencing headaches with vision changes, it is more likely to indicate migraines, cluster headaches, or tension headaches than a brain tumor. These conditions should not be alarming.

However, persistent headaches or blurred vision that do not get better with usual medications, or that are accompanied by persistent nausea or vomiting, should prompt a more thorough evaluation by a physician. Depending on the specific symptoms, your physician may order a CT or MRI scan.

Fact #2: Microwaves, X-rays, cell phones, and artificial sweeteners don’t cause brain tumors.

Your activity didn’t cause a brain tumor. Studies published by the Brain Tumor Epidemiology Consortium (BTEC) have looked at large population data sets, over decades, searching for risks associated with brain tumors. Some of the largest studies of the effects of radio-frequency radiation on the brain have found no significant cause for concern.

This myth is based on the misconception that cell phones and other devices emit small amounts of electromagnetic radiation that could lead to DNA damage in brain cells, causing them to mutate into malignant tumor cells.

The evidence has not shown this to be accurate. Radiation that would cause this degree of damage would actually burn the skin first, while simultaneous forming a tumor. Also, the bone of the skull is composed of calcium, which is another barrier of protection from radio-frequency radiation.

In addition, dental X-ray technology has evolved over decades and today’s X-rays use lower radiation doses, with newer machines that use less power and are able to focus more narrowly.

Fact #3: Genetics don’t determine who will develop a brain tumor.

The vast majority of brain tumors occur by random chance and are very rare in the general population.

However, there are some rare genetic conditions that predispose individuals to develop certain types of brain tumors. Conditions including neurofibromatosis type 1 and type 2, tuberous sclerosis, Turcot syndrome, retinoblastoma and Li-Fraumeni syndrome can predispose individuals to develop gliomas and other tumors throughout the body. Since mapping the human genome, and combining that information with new data in the age of personalized medicine, we are discovering new genetic links tied to newly discovered genes and small nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs).

Fact #4: Brain tumors need treatment.

In other parts of the body, a benign tumor is usually associated with a good prognosis. However, because of the unique nature of the brain, benign tumors can pose a danger by placing pressure on the brain, compressing cranial nerves or causing swelling of the brain stem. In these situations, the tumors must be treated to prevent continued neurologic complications that may lead to death.

Malignant tumors that begin in the brain or spread to the brain also present unique challenges. Unlike tumors located in other areas of the body, it is not possible to remove all traces of a brain tumor with surgery. These tumors will always spread to the surrounding brain tissue on a microscopic level. Even after a careful surgical resection, there will always be a need for further treatment and/or surveillance.

Both benign and malignant brain tumors can recur. Following up with a specialist is important to determine if and when a tumor has returned. Additionally, some treatment options have long-term side effects that need to be monitored.

Once treatment is complete, your doctors will transition you to a state of surveillance, where imaging tests and lab work will be checked periodically. For some brain tumors, after enough time has passed, there is a possibility that your physicians may clear you to no longer need further surveillance scans. However, patients should always monitor their symptoms and return to their physicians if they notice any new symptoms.

Depending on the type of brain tumor and the course of treatment, patients may experience long-term effects. When treatment ends, many patients feel a sense of relief but also uncertainty about the path forward. Often, patients will need to adapt to a “new normal” way of living.

UTHealth Houston Neurosciences is a large, comprehensive academic and research-based program that provides the full continuum of neuroscience care. Our group consists of over 150 providers who are committed to quality outcomes and to each patient’s experience. To ask us a question, schedule an appointment, or learn more about us, please call (713) 500-8846 (UTHN).

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About the Author

Krish VigneswaranDr. Krish Vigneswaran has special expertise in benign and malignant tumors of the brain and spine, using stereotactic neuro-navigation, intra-operative brain mapping, awake craniotomies, fluorescence-guided surgery, endoscopic surgery and other tools to provide safe resection of tumors.

This content is not medical advice or a substitute for professional medical advice. If you or any other person has a medical concern, you should consult with a health care provider. If you think you may have a medical emergency, call your medical provider or emergency services immediately. Do not disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something that you have read on this website or in any linked materials.