Cancer. That one word alone can bring the strongest of men down to tears. Worse, yet, is Brain Cancer. What is it? How can it be treated? Better yet, how can it be prevented?
Brain cancer is the leading cause of cancer related deaths in children, second for males ranging from ages of 20-39 years old and the fifth for women in the same age range. Already there are 700,000 people believed to be living in the US with a brain tumor and 70,000 new cases will be discovered this year alone.
What Causes Brain Cancer?
The body’s central nervous system (CNS) is made up of two major parts: the brain and the spinal cord. Cancer is caused when there is an abnormal growth of cells. With regards to brain cancer, this growth occurs in the brain or becomes attached to the spinal cord. That brings up the question; what really causes brain cancer?
There are several factors that can contribute to brain cancer. If you’ve experienced one of the following, you might be at an elevated risk:
- Head Injury – If you’ve had an accident that gave you a concussion, or a worse injury, regardless of how long ago it occurred then you might have a higher risk of developing a cancer in the brain.
- Family History – If cancer runs in your family, the chances are high that you will, at some point in your life, develop a cancer as well.
- Medical Treatments – There are some medical treatments that can cause tumors to develop; namely anything involving radiation, such as X-rays. (Years ago, dental X-ray machines emitted enough radiation to cause brain tumors, though that is not the case today.)
- Environmental Factors – There have been studies done that show that some environmental factors could cause brain tumors to develop. The main factor being ionizing radiation.
It is not uncommon for a patient to have had a tumor in the brain for many years and never know about it. The bigger the tumor is, the apter you are to show the symptoms. These symptoms will also vary with where the tumor is located. A tumor located inside your brain will show different symptoms than a one attached to your spinal cord. If you are experiencing any of the following symptoms, you should consult your doctor immediately:
- Sensory and motor loss.
- Loss of behavioral and cognitive thinking.
- Blood Clots.
- Hearing and vision loss.
If the tumor is attached to your spine, it could also cause one or more of the following:
- Change in bowel movements
- Leg weakness.
- Inability to walk.
How is Brain Cancer Diagnosed?
If it is suspected that you have a brain tumor, there are many tests that can be done. Some tests are as simple as the doctor observing movements of your eyes and others as intrusive as having exploratory surgery. The following list is just an overview of what to expect when seeing your doctor,
1. Neurological Exam
Whenever brain cancer is suspected, a doctor will go through a routine exam that will hopefully lead them to where the tumor may be, if there is one at all. During this test, the doctor will monitor your eye movement as you follow his pen to the left, right, and up and down. He will also run a series of sense tests (no, not common sense). He will check all the five senses: touch, taste, hear, smell, and sight.
During this neurological exam, the doctor will also run a series of tests that will check your mental ability, such as cognitive thinking test and balance test along with a memory test. The reason behind all of these tests is to determine if any nerves are damaged or not. If there is a brain tumor found, don’t be surprised if your doctor repeats the neurological exam to monitor your progress.
2. Brain Scans
If the neurological exam comes back inconclusive, or even if it shows signs of a tumor, your doctor will then order scans to be done. There are two major types of brain scans, each having different versions that can be run:
- CT (Computed Tomography) Scan
Similar to an X-ray, a CT scan uses a doughnut shaped X-ray machine along with computer technology. The patient is placed in the machine, while it spins around the patient’s head. As it spins, hundreds of pictures are taken of the brain. The computer then takes all of these pictures and forms an image of the brain that will show if a tumor is present and where it is located.
- MRI (Magnetic Resonance Imaging)
The MRI is a long, cylindrical shaped machine that the patient is slid into. Once inside, the machine sends magnetic signals through the patient’s body and these are then sent to a computer where an image of the brain is produced.
As stated above, there are many variations of these scans. Your doctor may decide to use what’s known as contrast fluid which is administered to you through an IV to monitor the cerebrospinal fluid flow through your central nervous system. This also allows the doctor to see blood flow through the pictures taken of the brain.
3. Lab Tests
Your doctor may decide to look at using lab tests to determine if you have a brain cancer. There are several ways they will get fluids from your body to test.
- Lumbar Puncture – This test is done while the patient lays completely still on their side and then takes a sample of cerebrospinal fluid from the spinal cord. This will be used to determine the levels of tumor cells, infection, proteins, and blood.
- Evoked-Potentials – This test checks the electrical activity of the nerves by using small, electrical nodes. This test can also be used to monitor neurological function during surgery.
- Biomarker Research – This test checks for biological markers in bodily fluids to determine if a person has a tumor. It is also being tested to determine a person’s risk of developing brain cancer.
“This is by no means a comprehensive list of all of the tests that you might have to endure. Please consult your doctor about any questions you have about the tests you might possibly endure.”
4. Exploratory Surgery
If all of the tests come back inconclusive, or if the doctor cannot find the tumor, he or she might decide to go in to see if they can find out the tumor through surgery. This is always done as a last resort because it can cause extra complications.
A biopsy, which is different from a surgery, is used once the tumor is found and to determine if the tumor is cancerous. The finding of the biopsy will determine which method is used for treatment.
What If I Have Brain Cancer?
Cancer of any kind, at one time, was considered to be 100 percent fatal. With medical advancement, that is not the case today. However, it can sometimes be a lengthy process to become cancer free. Determining what treatments would be the best can be a careful, and an agonizing process because some of the treatments will actually harm the patient before it helps them. With over 120 types of tumors, not one treatment works for all of them. Don’t be surprised if during your treatments, you begin to have more symptoms or if your symptoms get worse.
Surgery is not always the best option. Sometimes, it is not an option at all. The thing that determines the type of treatment is the size and the location of the tumor. If it is deep inside your brain, it may be considered to be inoperable. If this is the case, doctors will use Chemotherapy and radiation to shrink it, and hopefully get rid of the tumor.
Chemo may still be used, even if you will be having the surgery. Doctors do this in an effort to make the tumor smaller; the smaller the tumor is, the better chance the surgery will be effective. It is even possible to have to endure a few chemo treatments after surgery, just as a precaution in case the doctor wasn’t able to remove* all of the tumor. The following are some more factors that affect the treatment:
- The health of the patient.
- The type and size of the tumor.
- The location of the tumor.
- Whether this is the patient’s first time with the cancer or a recurring type.
- If there will be a part of the cancer left after surgery.
If the tumor doesn’t respond to treatments, the doctor will order harsher, more aggressive treatments.
If you have been diagnosed with brain cancer, don’t worry yourself to death. In today’s medical world, there is more of a chance for you to beat it than for it to beat you; it is definitely not the end game. Follow the protocols your doctor sets in place. If you have a higher risk due to the factors mentioned, don’t hesitate to see a doctor. It’s better to have it checked out and be told that there’s nothing wrong than to not have it checked and be too late.
It’s easy to get depressed before, during, and after the process. Be sure to have a good supporting structure. Allow your family to help you. Find someone who has been through it already. Whatever you do, don’t give up.