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Austin Brain Tumor Center Frequently Asked Questions

Many of your questions about brain and neuro cancers may be answered here with our frequently asked questions.

Q: What is brain cancer?

Brain cancer is an abnormal growth of cells in the brain. This growth is called a tumor and can be either malignant (cancerous) or benign (not cancerous). There are two types of brain cancer: primary, which originates in the brain, and metastatic, cancer that begins elsewhere in the body and spreads to the brain.

Generally, benign tumors don’t invade other tissues and usually have a distinguishable edge. Benign tumors tend to cause symptoms by putting pressure on surrounding structures within the brain.

Malignant tumors contain fast-growing cells that tend to invade and destroy adjacent structures.

Q: How common is brain cancer?

The likelihood of being diagnosed with a malignant brain tumor is less than 1 percent. The American Cancer Society estimates approximately 22,850 new cases of primary malignant tumors of the brain or spinal cord will be diagnosed in the United States in 2015. Metastatic tumors to the brain are about 10 times more common.

Q: What are the symptoms of brain cancer?

There are several common symptoms of brain cancer. If you experience any of these symptoms, you should consult your physician. Many of these symptoms are similar to symptoms of a stroke. However brain tumor symptoms usually progress gradually over days to weeks while stroke symptoms tend to have a rapid onset over minutes.

  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Headaches
  • Changes in speech, vision, or hearing
  • Memory loss
  • Gradual movement or sensation loss in an extremity
  • Seizures
  • Problems walking or changes in balance
  • Changes in behavior or personality
  • Disorientation and confusion

Q: What are the risk factors for brain cancer?

Most brain tumors have no known causes and there are few risk factors:

  • Previous radiation therapy to the head.
  • If you have a compromised immune systems (patients with AIDS, Epstein-Barr virus, or who have had an organ transplant).
  • A small percentage of brain tumors develop in people with a family history of brain tumors or genetic syndromes.

Q: How is brain cancer treated?

Your treatment plan will be based on the type, location, and stage of your cancer, as well as your overall health.

Surgery is the main treatment for tumors located within the membranes covering the brain or in an area where removal would not damage neurological function. However, surgery may not be an option for tumors that have spread into brain tissue or are near sensitive areas. Even if the entire tumor cannot be removed, surgery can relieve some symptoms caused by the tumor.

A combination of treatments including radiation therapy, radiosurgery, chemotherapy , or targeted drug therapy may provide the best chance of disease control.

Brain tumors can be difficult to treat, and you may require a team of physicians, including a neurologist, neurosurgeon, radiation oncologist, medical oncologist, neuro-oncologist, and endocrinologist to monitor your care.

Q: Are there clinical trials available for primary brain tumors?

We offer patients access to innovative clinical trials. These studies address scientific challenges and identify better ways to treat, diagnose, and prevent cancer-related diseases. To qualify for a clinical trial, you must meet the specific criteria of a particular clinical trial, including age, gender, cancer type, stage of cancer, previous treatments, current medications, lab results, and a history of other cancers.

Q: What is a glioblastoma multiforme (GBM) and what are the risk factors?

A glioblastoma multiforme or GBM is the most common and most malignant form of brain cancer.

Few clear risk factors have been identified.

  • Some genetic syndromes can increase the risk of gliomas, including neurofibromatosis, Li-Fraumeni syndrome and Turcot syndrome.
  • Exposure to ionizing radiation directed to the head is a known risk factor.
  • There appears to be no link between smoking or other known carcinogens for the development of GBM.
  • DNA from several viruses has been found in the DNA of GBM cells, but more research is needed.

Q: How is glioblastoma multiforme treated?

Your treatment plan will be based on the type, location, and stage of your cancer, as well as your overall health. Treatment can include a combination of surgery to remove the tumor as safely and completely as possible, external beam radiation combined with chemotherapy, followed by chemotherapy and experimental therapies such as vaccines and targeted drugs. Sometimes, steroids are used to decrease brain swelling.

Q: What is the difference between an astrocytoma from a GBM?

A glioblastoma is an astrocytoma, a grade IV astrocytoma, the most aggressive type of astrocytoma.