Any cancer diagnosis is frightening, but it is especially so when there is a tumor in the brain. While some types of brain cancer are less aggressive than others, they all have the potential to disrupt a person's thoughts, memories, senses, personality, language abilities, and body control.
In 2004, roughly 35,000 Americans were being diagnosed with a primary brain tumor, and another 150,000 patients with brain tumors that have spread from other parts of the body. Improvements in diagnosis led to a sudden jump in reports of brain cancer in the mid-1980s, but the numbers have since leveled off. Brain cancer can arise at any age, but most patients are either younger than 12 or older than 40.
Like any cancer, brain cancer gets its start when cells start dividing abnormally and uncontrollably, forming growths known as tumors. But not all tumors are cancerous: some are benign. Still, benign tumors in the brain or spinal cord can pose a threat to health if they grow large enough to compress vital tissue. Cancerous tumors in the brain typically don't spread to distant areas of the body, but they can invade other areas of the brain and the spinal cord.
Some 80% of malignant tumors in the brain don't originate there. Instead, they are metastases of other primary cancers that have spread to the brain from elsewhere in the body. The cells in these tumors, known as secondary brain tumors, resemble cells from the original cancers – not brain cells.
Primary Brain Tumors
These are tumors that originate in brain tissue. Doctors classify primary brain tumors according to the cells of the brain from which they arise, the appearance of individual cancer cells under the microscope, their location in the brain, or a combination of these factors. Most brain cancers are called gliomas, which means they arise in the tissue in the brain known as glial tissue. Examples include astrocytomas, which start in brain cells called astrocytes, and glioblastomas, which are particularly aggressive forms of astrocytomas.
More important than the name of the tumor is its 'grade', or aggressiveness.
It is not yet completely understood why brain cells turn cancerous, but some factors can make the disease more likely. Research is being carried out to see if certain viruses trigger the disease. The disease rarely strikes more than one member of a family, which suggests heredity doesn't play a major role. Contrary to popular belief, there is still no clear evidence at this point that cellular phones or power lines can cause brain cancer.
Symptoms of a brain tumor depend mainly on the size of the tumor and its location in the brain. Many patients first notice a headache that comes and goes. The headache may be especially bad in the morning and then fade during the day.
Brain tumors may have a variety of symptoms ranging from headache to stroke. They are great mimics of other neurologic disorders. It is sometimes hard to know whether a CT Scan or MRI should be done if someone exhibits some of the symptoms and signs of brain cancer, but it is important to know that these studies will usually definitively establish whether a brain tumor is responsible for any of these symptoms.
Some problems which seem to be other diseases may in fact be a tumor. For example, sometimes a fall can come from a seizure caused by a tumor.
If you are concerned, you should call a doctor who is familiar with these tumors – early detection and treatment may increase survival. If symptoms persist, sometimes gentle urging for an MRI is important to assure that everything is all right.
Many patients beat this disease, but they do it by focusing significant time and energy on treatment.
With major technological advances such as gene therapy and immunotherapy, there are more treatment options than ever before. Even the old standbys – surgery, radiation, and chemotherapy – are much more sophisticated now, allowing removal of previously inoperable tumors, and delivery of radiation or cancer-killing drugs directly to the tumor to decrease side-effects.
Brain cancer can be life-threatening, particularly if left untreated.
Loss of vision in one or both eyes could indicate a brain tumor.
Loss of vision in one or both eyes is especially notable if it is peripheral vision loss.
Double vision, especially if it is associated with headache, is a significant symptom of a brain tumor.
Meningiomas – benign tumors that originate in the covering (meninges) around the brain – can cause different symptoms, depending on where they grow. They may cause weakness or numbness, seizures, an impaired sense of smell, bulging eyes, and changes in vision. In elderly people, they may cause memory loss and difficulty in thinking, similar to that found with Alzheimer's disease.
Speech difficulty of gradual onset is a possible brain tumor symptom.
This is probably the most common symptom of a brain tumor. Most people with headache, even persistent or severe headaches, do not have a tumor. However, some kinds of headache are particularly worrisome. A steady headache that is worse in the morning than the afternoon, a persistent headache that is associated with nausea or vomiting, or a headache accompanied by double vision, weakness, or numbness all suggest a possible tumor.
A change in behavior, such as the development of an "I don't care" attitude, speech changes, memory loss, loss of concentration, and general confusion may all be subtle signs of a brain tumor. An evaluation by a neurologist may be an important step, but a CT or MRI will also help.
Gradual loss of sensation in an arm or leg (numbness) can be due to a brain tumor.
Gradual loss of movement in an arm or leg can indicate a brain tumor.
Gradual loss of movement in an arm or leg could indicate a brain tumor. When walking, unsteadiness, stumbling or imbalance (feeling weak and uncoordinated), especially if it is associated with headache, is a significant symptom.
In very rare cases, a brain tumor can cause infertility.
Some factors can make the disease more likely. For example, chemists, embalmers, and people who work in oil refineries, rubber factories, or drug factories may be at slightly higher-than-average risk.
In 1981 Satya Dubey, an FDA statistician, stated that the brain tumor data on aspartame was so "worrisome" that he could not recommend approval of NutraSweet. In a two-year study conducted by the manufacturer of aspartame, twelve of the 320 rats fed a normal diet and aspartame developed brain tumors while none of the control rats had tumors. Five of the twelve tumors were in rats given a low dose of aspartame. The approval of aspartame was a violation of the Delaney Amendment which was supposed to prevent cancer-causing substances such as methanol (formaldehyde) and DKP from entering our food supply.
The late Dr Adrian Gross, an FDA toxicologist, testified before the US Congress that aspartame was capable of producing brain tumors. This made it illegal for the FDA to set an allowable daily intake at any level. He stated in his testimony that Searle's studies were "to a large extent unreliable" and that "at least one of those studies has established beyond any reasonable doubt that aspartame is capable of inducing brain tumors in experimental animals..." He concluded his testimony by asking, "What is the reason for the apparent refusal by the FDA to invoke for this food additive the so-called Delaney Amendment to the Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act? ... And if the FDA itself elects to violate the law, who is left to protect the health of the public?"
In the mid-1970s it was discovered that the manufacturer of aspartame falsified studies in several ways. One of the techniques used was to cut tumors out of test animals and put them back in the study. Another technique used to falsify the studies was to list animals that had actually died as surviving the study. Thus, the data on brain tumors was likely worse than discussed above. In addition, a former employee of the manufacturer of aspartame, Raymond Schroeder, told the FDA on July 13, 1977 that the particles of DKP were so large that the rats could discriminate between the DKP and their normal diet.
It is interesting to note that the incidence of brain tumors in persons over 65 years of age increased 67% between the years 1973 and 1990. Brain tumors in all age groups has jumped 10%. The greatest increase has come during the years 1985-1987.
In his book, Aspartame (NutraSweet). Is it Safe?, Roberts gives evidence that aspartame can cause a particularly dangerous form of cancer – primary lymphoma of the brain.
The presence of opioid receptors on tumor cells is considered necessary for low dose naltrexone to be beneficial. Glioblastomas and astrocytomas were thought to be low in these receptors, but this assumption has turned out to be inaccurate. These tumor types contain sizable numbers of opioid receptors on their cell membranes.
Dr. Stanislaw Burzynski, who practices in Houston, Texas, has discovered that a group of peptides (short chains of amino acids) and amino acid derivatives normally are present in the body and serve to keep cells healthy and dividing normally. He also has discovered that people with cancer are critically short on these substances, which he has named "antineoplastons". He has particular success with non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, as well as two brain cancers: glioblastoma multiforme and astrocytoma, both of which are incurable using conventional therapy.
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