A brain tumor is an abnormal growth of cells in or near the brain. Scientists and medical professionals have documented more than 150 types of brain tumor. Not all of them are cancerous.
A tumor that starts in the brain is called a primary brain tumor. It can be cancerous or benign (non-cancerous). When cancer spreads from another area of the body and causes a brain tumor (metastatic), it’s a secondary brain tumor.
In general, symptoms of a brain tumor or brain cancer depend on the size and the location of the tumor, as well as the type of tumor. “Many signs and symptoms of brain cancer or a brain tumor can be associated with something else, such as stroke, infection, or any number of things,” says Priscilla Brastianos, MD, a Mass General Cancer Center physician-scientist and director of the Central Nervous System Metastasis Center.
“When in doubt, talk to your primary care doctor,” Dr. Brastianos recommends. She offers insights into potential brain tumor symptoms, as well as what to expect when you seek diagnosis.
Dr. Brastianos is a leading researcher in brain tumors with a particular research focus on:
“I’ve been focusing on trying to find better treatments for patients with primary and metastatic brain tumors,” Dr. Brastianos says. “We comprehensively study tumor samples from patients to identify molecular causes of brain tumors. Then we use that information to create and study new therapies. We’ve been able to use our scientific findings to introduce new, more effective therapies to the clinic, which has been tremendously rewarding.”
Because there are so many types of brain tumor, there are many possible signs. Some people don’t experience any symptoms at all, but you may experience:
Because brain cancer symptoms can look like symptoms of other health conditions, it’s important to see your doctor immediately to get to the root cause. If you develop any new symptoms, you should talk to your primary care provider. If you suddenly develop drooping of one side of your face or new weakness or numbness in a part of your body, that may require calling 9-1-1.
“When you seek medical attention for symptoms of brain cancer, it’s important to see a doctor who specializes in these types of tumors, at an institution that sees a lot of these cases,” Dr. Brastianos says. “These institutions have teams of specialists who work together for brain tumor diagnosis and treatment. This multidisciplinary team is critical during both the diagnostic and treatment course.”
Depending on the diagnosis, your team may include:
Brain tumor or brain cancer diagnosis often involves:
Your team will likely order imaging tests to take pictures of your brain. Diagnosis can often be made by imaging alone. In most cases, the best imaging is an MRI (magnetic resonance imaging). The test takes about 45 minutes to an hour, with results in a couple of days.
Your doctor may also recommend surgery to take a sample for testing (biopsy) or to remove the tumor entirely. Results of surgical biopsy can also take a few days.
Doctors take many factors into consideration when making decisions about brain tumor treatment, including:
For example, some small meningiomas that are not growing or causing symptoms can be treated with a “watch and wait” approach. You have regular appointments with your specialist and regular imaging tests to keep an eye on the tumor. Your doctor recommends a switch to active treatment when the tumor gets large enough or causes problematic symptoms.
Other brain tumors require surgery to remove part or all of the tumor. In addition, beams of radiation to part of the brain or the whole brain can shrink a tumor. In many cases, medical therapy — chemotherapy, immunotherapy, or targeted therapy — is used. You work with your multidisciplinary team to get the appropriate treatment plan for your tumor.
“Every day, better treatments are being developed. Precision medicine uses an individual’s genetic or molecular information to more effectively diagnose and treat disease. It has truly revolutionized the management of all of these tumors,” Dr. Brastianos says. “Ongoing trials at Mass General Brigham and throughout the world are looking at specific, targeted treatments as well as immunotherapies.”