Health libraryBack to health library
Understanding brain cancer
Brain cancers don't typically spread to other organs. But depending on where in the brain it grows, these cancers can cause symptoms ranging from mild to life-threatening.
The term brain cancer can refer to several types of cancer.
These cancers can develop in different types of cells and different areas of the brain. Depending on the location and type of cancer, it can affect a person in different ways.
Areas of the brain
Tumors of the brain differ from other cancers because they don't usually spread to other organs. But they can interfere with brain functions that are essential to life.
The main areas of the brain include the cerebral hemispheres, basal ganglia, cerebellum and brain stem.
The cerebral hemispheres control reasoning, thought, emotion and language. They also are involved with muscle movement and interpreting sensory information such as sight, hearing, touch and pain sensation.
Symptoms caused by a tumor in the cerebral hemisphere vary depending on what part of the hemisphere is involved, according to the American Cancer Society. Symptoms may include seizures, difficulty with speech or language, or a change of mood, such as depression. A change in personality, weakness or paralysis on one side of the body, or changes in vision, hearing and sensation can also occur.
Basal ganglia help control your muscle movements. Tumors here typically cause abnormal movements or positioning.
The cerebellum controls coordination of movements. Symptoms of a tumor here can include lack of coordination in walking, difficulty with fine movements of arms and legs, and changes in speech patterns.
The brain stem contains bundles of long structures that carry signals to control muscles and sensation of feeling. Special centers in the brain stem also control your breathing and heartbeat. Tumors here may cause weakness, stiff muscles or problems with sensation, hearing, facial movement and swallowing.
Diagnosis and treatment
Symptoms of brain cancer most often start gradually and get worse over time. It is the symptoms themselves that usually lead doctors to suspect the disease. Currently, no blood tests or screening exams can detect it.
Cancers in some areas of the brain may cause symptoms earlier than those situated in other areas. Brain cancer that is found and treated earlier may be treated more successfully than brain cancer that isn't detected early.
Doctors rely on a medical history and physical exam, imaging studies, such as magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and computed tomography (CT) scans, and biopsies to make a diagnosis.
Most types of brain cancer are treated by surgery, radiation therapy or chemotherapy, either alone or in combination.
Survival rates for brain cancer vary widely. Factors include the type, location and size of the tumor, whether and how the tumor is affecting the person's everyday life, and the person's age.
Subscribe to This Week in Health to get the latest health news delivered to your inbox.