The brain is an incredible organ that ensures every part of your body works harmoniously. It’s responsible for everything you think, feel, and do. It interprets information from the outside world and houses the essence of who you are.
Millions of messages zip around it every second, ensuring you keep breathing, moving, and learning new things.
Now, imagine if something unexpected happened in this busy hub. A brain tumor is like an unwelcome visitor that disrupts the brain’s everyday activities. It doesn’t belong there, and depending on where it’s located, it can affect different parts of your brain’s function.
Brain tumors might sound scary, but let’s break them down into what they are, how you can spot them, and what can be done about them.
What’s A Brain Tumor Anyway?
A brain tumor is a bunch of cells in your brain that have grown unusually. They can be benign (non-cancerous) or malignant (cancerous).
Primary tumors, or abnormal brain lumps, can start in your brain and nearby locations such as nerves, pituitary glands, pineal glands, or the lining covering the brain’s surface. Secondary brain tumors can travel from other parts of your body to your brain.
How To Spot A Brain Tumor
Where they are, how big they’ve gotten, and what they’re doing can affect how you feel and act. Some tumors may also grow slowly and might not cause symptoms right away. Others are more aggressive and quickly make their presence known.
A tumor in one part of your brain can cause problems in that area and beyond. It might press on areas responsible for vision, make it hard to move a limb, cause involuntary movements, or change your behavior and thoughts.
You may have frequent headaches or notice they get worse over time. At times, you may feel dizzy or have trouble walking straight. You may also see changes in your hearing or speech.
If you’re feeling tired all the time or get confused or irritable, these could be signs that something isn’t right and you need to see a doctor.
Diagnosing Brain Tumors
Doctors have a variety of tools and tests they can use to diagnose brain tumors. Think of it as gathering clues and evidence to make a diagnosis as accurate as possible. Here’s how they go about it:
When you visit a doctor with symptoms that might suggest a brain tumor, they’ll start with your medical history and a physical exam. They’ll ask about your symptoms: what they were, when they began, and how they’ve changed over time.
The doctor may also perform a neurological exam to test your vision, hearing, balance, coordination, strength, and reflexes.
Imaging tests create pictures of your brain that allow doctors to see what’s happening inside your head. These are some of the main types:
MRI (Magnetic Resonance Imaging): This is often the first test done. It uses powerful magnets and radio waves to create detailed brain images. It’s particularly good at showing brain tumors.
- CT (Computed Tomography) Scan: This imaging test uses powerful X-rays to create detailed cross-sectional images of your brain.
- PET (Positron Emission Tomography) Scan: Often combined with a CT scan, this test can show active areas of the brain and helps understand the biology of your brain tumor.
A biopsy is when a small tumor sample is removed and analyzed under a microscope. It’s the most definitive way of diagnosing a brain tumor. There are different ways to do a biopsy:
- Stereotactic Biopsy: Done during an MRI or CT scan to precisely locate the tumor. The surgeon makes a small hole in the skull and uses a needle to remove a tissue sample.
- Surgical Biopsy: The surgeon takes a sample of the brain tumor during the operation.
Once a biopsy is taken, the sample goes to a lab where a pathologist looks at the cells. They check for the type of cells, how fast they’re growing, and other markers that can give clues about the tumor’s behavior and how best to treat it.
Brain tumors are assigned a grade range of 1 to 4 depending on their size and how fast they grow and multiply. Low-grade tumors are slow growing, while high-grade brain tumors are more aggressive.
Other Diagnostic Tests
In some cases, additional tests might be needed to understand the tumor’s effect on your brain function:
- Electroencephalogram (EEG): Measures electrical activity in the brain and can help identify areas the tumor affects.
- Lumbar Puncture (Spinal Tap): Can detect if tumor cells have spread to the spinal fluid.
Diagnosing a brain tumor is a complex process that involves a variety of tests and techniques. Each step provides crucial information that helps diagnose and plan the best possible treatment.
Approaching Treatment For Brain Tumors
Once a brain tumor has been diagnosed, the next is to consider the best course of treatment. Treatment strategies are tailored to the individual’s specific type of tumor, its location, size, and the patient’s overall health and preferences.
Here’s a closer look at the treatment options:
Surgery is the first line of treatment for most brain tumors. The goal is to remove as much of the cancer as possible without damaging the surrounding brain tissue. Surgery can provide immediate relief from symptoms caused by pressure in the brain.
The procedure also helps reduce the size of the tumor, making other treatments more effective.
- Craniology: The most common type of surgery for brain tumors where a portion of the skull is removed to access the tumor.
- Endoscopic Transnasal Transsphenoidal Surgery: A less invasive technique used mainly for tumors in the pituitary gland or base of the skull.
- Awake Brain Surgery: In some cases, patients remain awake during surgery to ensure that critical areas of brain function are not affected.
Specialized facilities such as Dickinson Neurological Surgery and major hospitals provide comprehensive treatment plans for brain tumors using the latest techniques and technologies.
Radiation therapy uses high-energy rays or particles to kill tumor cells. It’s often used after surgery to eliminate any remaining tumor cells or in cases where surgery isn’t possible.
External Beam Radiation therapy directs radiation at the tumor from outside the body. On the other hand, Stereotactic Radiosurgery (SRS) is a form of radiation therapy that targets cancer with a high dose of radiation while minimizing damage to healthy tissue.
Chemotherapy uses drugs to kill tumor cells or stop them from growing. These drugs can be taken orally or injected into the bloodstream or the cerebrospinal fluid.
Systemic chemotherapy is a ‘whole-body’ approach where the medicine travels through the entire bloodstream to attack cancer cells wherever they are in the body.
It’s like sending out a search party to find and destroy the bad cells, no matter where they’re hiding. You might take these drugs by mouth or through an injection.
Imagine you know where the bad cells are hiding and want to target that spot. That’s what regional chemotherapy does. It delivers the cancer-fighting drug directly to the affected area while minimizing the effects on the rest of the body.
Targeted therapy drugs work differently from traditional chemotherapy. They target specific genes or proteins found in cancer cells or the cells related to cancer growth, like blood vessel cells.
Monoclonal antibodies are drugs that direct the immune system to attack cancer cells. At the same time, signal transduction inhibitors block the signals that tell cancer cells to grow.
These treatments show how understanding cancer at the molecular level can lead to more effective brain tumor treatments.
The immune system is your body’s natural defense against illnesses, including cancer.
But brain tumors, like other cancers, can be tricky. They find ways to evade and sometimes even suppress the immune system so they can continue to grow and spread.
That’s where immunotherapy comes in—it helps boost your immune system’s ability to fight the brain tumor.
Immunotherapy for brain tumors includes checkpoint inhibitors, cancer vaccines, and adoptive cell therapy. Checkpoint inhibitors help the immune system recognize and attack brain tumor cells. They block the pathways brain tumors use to hide from immune cells.
Cancer vaccines, conversely, kickstart the immune system against specific parts of the brain’s tumor cells.
Adoptive cell therapy involves taking immune cells from the patient, modifying them to become more effective against brain tumor cells, and then putting them back into the patient’s body to fight the tumor.
Immunotherapy is a rapidly evolving field, and ongoing research is crucial. Clinical trials are underway to understand the best ways to treat brain tumors with immunotherapy and to determine how these treatments can be combined with other therapies for the most effective results.
Recovery And Rehabilitation After Brain Tumor Treatment
Recovery from brain tumor treatment is a journey that varies significantly from person to person. It’s not just about the body healing; it’s also about adjusting to changes in your life and possibly relearning basic skills.
Here’s a closer look at what recovery and rehabilitation might involve after brain tumor treatment:
Recovery begins immediately after surgery. You might spend several days in the hospital, and it can take weeks or even months to recover fully. The focus is on managing pain, preventing infections, and slowly increasing physical activity.
It’s normal to feel post-treatment fatigue after radiation or chemotherapy sessions. This can last from a few months to a year.
Brain tumor treatment can affect your brain’s ability to function. Rehabilitation aims to help you regain as much function as possible. Physical therapy helps with balance, strength, and coordination. If you have difficulty moving your arms, physical therapy can help you regain mobility and independence.
Occupational therapy focuses on improving daily activities like dressing, eating, and writing. Occupational therapists find ways to modify activities and environments to match your abilities.
If the tumor affects your speech or swallowing, speech therapists can help you regain these skills. They can also help with cognitive issues like memory and problem-solving.
Emotional And Cognitive Recovery
Adjusting to life after a brain tumor can be challenging. Counselors, psychologists, or psychiatrists can provide emotional support and help you develop strategies to cope with changes.
Aside from emotional challenges, some people may experience memory, attention, or problem-solving changes. Cognitive rehabilitation involves exercises and strategies to help improve these cognitive functions.
Long-term follow-up is a critical aspect of care for individuals who have undergone treatment for brain tumors. It’s not just about looking for signs of the tumor returning; it’s about managing ongoing health, monitoring for late effects of treatment, and ensuring the best quality of life.
Expect regular appointments with your oncologist or neurologist. Your visits may become less frequent if no signs of the tumor return. Your healthcare team will also schedule physical exams to assess your overall health and catch any new symptoms early.
You’ll also undergo imaging tests, particularly MRI scans, to monitor the brain for changes. The schedule for these scans will depend on the type and grade of the tumor you had, as well as the treatment you received.
It’s also crucial to monitor for recurrence. Your healthcare team will educate you on the symptoms of a returning brain tumor, and they will act quickly to confirm whether the cancer has returned and discuss further treatment options.
Depending on the location and treatment of the tumor, you might experience long-term effects like weakness, balance issues, or cognitive changes. Ongoing therapy can help manage these effects.
It’s also crucial to address long-term psychological effects such as anxiety or depression. Regular mental health checkups and support can address these issues.
A healthy lifestyle is also essential for your long-term recovery. Proper diet, exercise, quitting smoking, and managing stress can help reduce the risk of recurrence and other health issues.
Having a robust support system is essential for anyone who has been through brain tumor treatment. Support systems include a network of family, friends, healthcare professionals, and community resources. Each plays a crucial role in your recovery and long-term well-being.
Family and friends can provide emotional support, love, and understanding. They can be there to listen, offer encouragement, and bring positivity into your daily life.
Loved ones can also assist you with everyday tasks that might be challenging after your treatment. They can also advocate on your behalf with healthcare providers or help you navigate the healthcare systems.
Your doctors, nurses, and therapists aren’t just there for treatment but also to help you manage long-term side effects and monitor for recurrence. Many hospitals and clinics offer counseling services as part of the recovery process.
Community resources can empower you in many ways. Support groups provide a space to exchange stories with others with similar experiences. Community organizations, such as meal delivery, transportation, home modification, and financial advice, can make your recovery quicker.
For those who do not have access to community resources or who prefer the convenience of online services, social media groups and online forums can be a great recovery tool. Telehealth services can also make receiving ongoing care and counseling easier from the comfort of your home.
Winning The Battle Against Brain Tumors
Overcoming a brain tumor involves more than medical treatment; it’s a comprehensive journey of healing, adaptation, and support. With advances in treatment, rehabilitation, and a robust support system, individuals can navigate the challenges and move toward recovery.
Remember, each step forward is a stride towards a more hopeful and empowered life. Embrace the journey with resilience, and know you are not alone in this fight.