Adult Brain Tumor

Written by Chitra Badii and Elizabeth Boskey, PhD | Published on July 16, 2012
Medically Reviewed by George Krucik, MD

Overview

A brain tumor is a collection of abnormal cells in the brain. Brain tumors can be either malignant (cancerous) or benign (unlikely to spread). However, there is a limited amount of space in the skull. Therefore, any brain tumor—even one that is benign—can interfere with the functions of your brain and body. Brain tumors can destroy brain cells, increase inflammation, and elevate the pressure in the brain.

A primary brain tumor starts in your brain. When cancer cells from other parts of your body cause a tumor in your brain, it is called a “secondary” or “metastatic brain tumor.” Secondary brain tumors are three times more common than primary brain tumors. All secondary brain tumors are malignant.

The Types of Adult Brain Tumors

Brain tumors are described by their location, tissue type, and the cells that make up the mass.

The following types of brain tumors are commonly found in adults:

  • Gliomas come in different types. They range from non-cancerous to mixed cells. Glioblastomas are the most aggressive form of glioma.
  • Meningiomas are more common in adults in the 40-70 age group. They are typically non-cancerous. Meningiomas occur more commonly in women.
  • Schwannomas also occur in adults aged 40-70. They affect both men and women.

There are also other types of brain tumors that can be found in adults. Some rare types of adult brain tumors include pituitary tumors, primary lymphoma of the brain, and ependymomas.

What Causes an Adult Brain Tumor?

Doctors do not know what causes primary brain tumors. However, several risk factors have been identified.

  • Some genetic diseases put you at risk for brain tumors. These include Turcot syndrome (a condition characterized by abnormal cells and polyps) and neurofibromatosis (a tumor-causing genetic disorder).
  • Radiation treatments for brain cancer increase your risk of developing brain tumors.

There is no proof that cell phone use causes brain cancer. The National Cancer Institute reports that although cell phone use has increased significantly from 1992 to 2008, the incidence of glioma has not seen a significant rise during that time period. However, researchers continue to study the question. It can take up to 10 years or longer for a brain tumor to manifest, requiring long-term studies. Some European studies have shown a slightly greater risk of brain tumors with heavy cell phone use.

What are the Symptoms of an Adult Brain Tumor?

Brain tumor symptoms vary significantly. They depend on the size and location of the tumor, the amount of swelling the tumor causes, and if the tumor has spread. Some common tumor symptoms include:

  • cognitive changes like memory loss, confusion, and disorientation
  • headaches that occur while sleeping, when waking up, or as a result of abrupt physical movements like coughing
  • seizures
  • weakness in the limbs, face, or one side of your body
  • lack of coordination and balance
  • trouble walking
  • difficulty reading, writing, talking, or deciphering the speech of others
  • changes in hearing, taste, smell, or vision
  • bladder control problems
  • changes in mood, personality, or behavior

How is an Adult Brain Tumor Diagnosed?

Doctors use a number of tests to diagnose brain tumors.

  • Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) is used to scan your brain and nerve tissues. For this test, you lie down on a table that slides into a scanner.
  • A cranial computed tomography (CT) scan takes X-rays of your head. An X-ray beam rotates around you to create many images of the head. This images are later put together to form a clearer picture of the inside of your head.
  • An electroencephalogram (EEG) examines your brain’s electrical impulses. A technician places flat metal disks on your scalp to see your brain’s electrical activity.
  • Tumor tissue removed during surgery, or a biopsy, may be examined to diagnose the tumor type.
  • Cerebral spinal fluid can be tested for cancer cells.

How Is an Adult Brain Tumor Treated?

Adult brain tumors are treated through a combination of surgery, radiation therapy, chemotherapy, and medication. The specific treatment depends on your age, tumor size, tumor type, and other health factors.

Surgery

Surgery is a common treatment for primary brain tumors. However, not all tumors can be fully removed. In these cases, a surgeon will attempt to reduce the tumor’s size. The extent of removal will depend on the tumor size and location.

If your tumor can’t be removed, you may still need surgery to release the pressure in your skull. This may help relieve some of your symptoms.

Other Treatments

Radiation therapy and chemotherapy (anticancer medication) can both be used to reduce tumor size.

Different medications can also be used to reduce brain swelling and pressure. These may include corticosteroids and diuretics.

Finally, doctors may treat specific symptoms such as pain and seizures with appropriate drugs.

Prognosis for Adult Brain Tumors

Prognosis depends on a number of factors, including your age, stage of the disease, type of tumor, and other health conditions. The following table from the American Cancer Society shows the survival rate for some types of brain tumors:

Type of Tumor

5-Year Relative Survival Rate

Age

20-44

45-54

55-64

Low-grade (diffuse) astrocytoma

59%

40%

NA*

Anaplastic astrocytoma

49%

29%

8%

Glioblastoma

16%

6%

3%

Oligodendroglioma

85%

77%

65%

Anaplastic oligodendroglioma

66%

53%

33%

Ependymoma/anaplastic ependymoma

91%

85%

84%

The outlook is much better if your tumor is detected and treated early. Brain tumors can also change as time goes by. They may become progressively more aggressive.

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Show Sources

  • Little, M.P. et al. (2012, March 8) Mobile Phone Use and Glioma Risk: Comparison of Epidemiological Study Results With Incidence Trends in the United States British Medical Journal 344:e1147. Retrieved March 30, 2012, from http://www.bmj.com/content/344/bmj.e1147

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