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Central Nervous System and Brain Tumors


About Brain Tumors

The brain is the center of thought, memory, emotion, speech, sensation and motor function. The spinal cord and special nerves in the head called cranial nerves carry and receive messages between the brain and the rest of the body.

There are two types of brain tumors:

  • Primary — a tumor that starts in the brain. Primary brain tumors can be benign (noncancerous) or malignant.
  • Metastatic — a tumor caused by cancer elsewhere in the body that spreads to the brain. Metastatic brain tumors are always cancerous.

Primary tumors in the brain or spinal cord rarely spread to distant organs. Brain tumors cause damage because as they grow they can interfere with surrounding cells that serve vital roles in our everyday life.

General Risk Factors for Brain Tumors

Most brain and spinal cord tumors have no known risk factors and occur for no apparent reason. There are no known proven ways to prevent these tumors.

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Facts about Brain Tumors

The Central Brain Tumor Registry of the United States estimates that more than 40,000 Americans will be diagnosed with a primary brain tumor this year.

This year, an estimated 170,000 Americans will be diagnosed with a brain or spinal cord tumor that has spread from another part of the body.

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Signs of Brain Tumors

No blood test or other screening exam can detect brain tumors, but there are often some outward signs. While tumors in different parts of the central nervous system disrupt different functions, some symptoms include:

  • Headaches
  • Nausea/vomiting
  • Seizures
  • Weakness or numbness on one side of the body
  • Changes in vision, hearing or sensation
  • Difficulty with speech
  • Lack of coordination
  • A change in mood or personality
  • Memory loss

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Diagnosing Brain Tumors

If you suffer from any of the initial signs of a brain tumor, your doctor will likely conduct some or all of the following tests:

  • A physical exam to determine your overall health.
  • A neurologic exam to evaluate brain and spinal cord function.
  • Imaging studies, such as CT or MRI to look for signs of a brain tumor.
  • If studies or scans indicate you might have a brain tumor, some tissue may be taken from the tumor to make an exact diagnosis. This test is called a biopsy.
  • A spinal tap may also be performed to look for tumor cells. During this test, a needle is placed in the lower back to obtain a sample of cerebrospinal fluid. This fluid is then examined to see if tumor cells are present.

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Treating Brain Tumors

If doctors determine that you have a tumor, the treatment options and prognosis are based on the following factors:

  • Tumor type
  • Location and size of tumor
  • Tumor grade (how abnormal the cells are)
  • Your age, medical history and general health

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Radiation Therapy Options for Brain Tumors

People with brain tumors should discuss treatment options with several cancer specialists, including a radiation oncologist. A radiation oncologist is a doctor who will help you understand the types of radiation therapy available to treat your tumor. Conventional radiation therapy treatment options for brain tumors include:

  • External beam radiation therapy.
  • Stereotactic radiotherapy.
  • Brachytherapy or internal radiation therapy.

 External beam radiation therapy involves a series of daily outpatient treatments over several weeks to accurately deliver radiation to the brain. Radiation is often given after surgery, and sometimes it is used instead of surgery.

Stereotactic radiotherapy, sometimes called radiosurgery, is a type of external beam radiation therapy that pinpoints high doses directly on the tumor, in some cases in only one treatment.

Brachytherapy, or Internal radiation therapy, works by placing radioactive sources in or just next to a tumor. During brachytherapy, a tube or balloon called a catheter will be inserted into the brain. The radiation will then be carried to the tumor using this catheter. This procedure is called GliaSite. The doctors at ROA are the only physicians in the DC Metropolitan area offering this advance delivery of radiotherapy in select patients.

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Potential Side Effects

The effects of brain radiation can vary depending on your tumor and the technique used to treat it.

Before treatment, your radiation oncologist will discuss any side effects — however rare — you may experience.

Possible side effects can include fatigue, change in appetite, headaches, visual changes, hair loss, skin irritation, nausea, vomiting and/or unsteadiness.

Some side effects can be treated with steroids or other medications. Talk to your doctor about any problems you experience.

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