Thinking you might have a brain tumor is a scary thought. Maybe you’ve had bad headaches lately. Maybe you know a family member with a brain tumor and wonder if you could have one, too. These are natural thoughts to have, but don’t jump to conclusions just yet.
“Thankfully, brain tumors are very rare things,” assures Omar Arnaout, MD, a Mass General Brigham brain surgeon and brain tumor specialist. Dr. Arnaout treats patients at Brigham and Women’s Hospital.
He also stresses that a tumor doesn’t equal cancer. “A tumor, or mass, is just an abnormal growth that’s not meant to be there. Some are cancerous and some are noncancerous.”
Knowing the signs and symptoms of brain tumors can help put your mind at ease. In the worst-case scenario, you can know when you should seek immediate medical attention.
Seizures happen when your brain has a surge of abnormal electrical activity. “A seizure tends to be the most common sign of tumors that are within the brain tissue,” says Dr. Arnaout.
A brain tumor may cause a big, obvious seizure. During this type of seizure, you lose consciousness (awareness) and your muscles jerk uncontrollably.
A brain tumor can also cause a small, less noticeable seizure. For example, you may experience repetitive twitching in your arm or face. Or you may appear to stare into space for a minute.
Smelling the same odor repeatedly can also be a sign of a seizure. If you think you’ve had a seizure, you should get medical care right away.
Some people may experience a very bad headache from a brain tumor. But a headache is rarely the only symptom of a brain mass.
Rather, brain tumor headaches usually:
Headaches are warning signs of a brain tumor when you have all these symptoms together. In this case, you should seek medical attention to check the cause of your headache.
“A regular headache that comes and goes with no other symptoms is not very worrisome,” says Dr. Arnaout. He assures that most headaches are not related to a brain tumor. For example, migraine headaches can also cause nausea and vomiting.
You may experience other symptoms of a brain tumor, depending on the location and size of the mass. As a tumor grows, it can press on the structures around it. It can also cause swelling in surrounding areas.
In these cases, symptoms of a brain tumor may include specific changes to your abilities or behavior. You may notice:
Dr. Arnaout notes that, apart from seizures, symptoms of a brain tumor tend to develop gradually. But you should also get evaluated right away for any sudden changes to your abilities.
In most cases, brain tumors are not hereditary (passed down in families). “The vast majority of cases are random events that happen to people,” says Dr. Arnaout.
“There are some families who have gene mutations (changes) that make them more susceptible to cancers of all sorts,” he adds. “But those mutations are very rare, and everybody in the family is aware of the condition.”
Genetic specialists can help you learn about your risk. They coordinate screening tests to check for signs of a brain tumor if you do have a hereditary condition. Your health care provider may also recommend genetic screening if you get diagnosed with a certain type of tumor.
Only brain imaging can tell you if you have a brain mass. Your health care provider may order imaging tests, such as a computed tomography (CT) scan or a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scan.
Certain cancers are more likely to spread (metastasize) to the brain, including breast, lung, and skin cancers. Dr. Arnaout recommends following up closely with your cancer doctor if you have a history of cancer. Your doctor can determine if you need a brain MRI for early detection of cancer that spreads.
“At Mass General Brigham, we’re exploring ways of being even more proactive,” says Dr. Arnaout. “We’re identifying people who are at a particularly high risk of developing tumors that spread from the body to the brain and looking into screening them before they even develop symptoms.”
Getting diagnosed with a brain tumor is a life-changing and stressful event. If you do have a brain mass, Dr. Arnaout ensures that a doctor will see you right away. You’ll have a care team established and a treatment plan set up within a day or two.
Surprisingly, not all brain tumors need treatment. Your doctor may simply recommend regular check-ups for noncancerous masses that don’t cause symptoms.
If you do need treatment, you’ll have an army of advanced therapies to help you. Dr. Arnaout highlights that brain tumor treatment has evolved dramatically in recent years. You’ll have access to:
“A brain tumor is a big deal and it’s often a scary thing to go through,” says Dr. Arnaout. “But things are better across the board than they were 5 or 10 years ago.”