Brain Cancer

More than 17,000 people in the United States each year are diagnosed with a brain tumor. Some tumors are benign (noncancerous), and they can usually be removed and are not likely to recur. Others are malignant (cancerous); they interfere with vital functions and are life-threatening. Malignant brain tumors usually grow rapidly, crowding and invading tissue.

Primary brain tumors are cancers that arise in the brain and affect the central nervous system (CNS). Secondary brain tumors, which are 10 times more common, are cancers that originated elsewhere in the body and have metastasized (spread) to the brain.

Signs and Symptoms

A brain tumor can be accompanied by the following signs and symptoms.

Who's Most At Risk?

People with the following conditions or characteristics may be at risk for developing a brain tumor.

What to Expect at Your Provider's Office

If you are experiencing symptoms associated with a brain tumor, you should see your health care provider immediately. Your provider will ask about your personal and family medical history, and will perform a complete physical and neurologic exam. This includes checks for alertness, muscle strength, coordination, reflexes, and response to pain, and an eye exam to look for swelling caused by a tumor pressing on the nerve that connects the eye and the brain. The provider may send you for a computed tomography (CT) scan and/or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). Additional tests may include skull X ray, brain scan, angiogram or arteriogram, and a myelogram (X ray of the spine, using dye). If cancer is present, others who may become involved in your care include a neurosurgeon, medical oncologist, radiation oncologist, nurse, dietitian, social worker, physical therapist, occupational therapist, and speech therapist.

Treatment Options

Treatment Plan
Treatment for a brain tumor depends on the type, location, and size of the tumor, as well as the person's age and general health. Treatment generally involves surgery, radiation therapy, and/or chemotherapy.

Drug Therapies

Your provider may prescribe the following therapies.

Surgical and Other Procedures

Surgery is the most common treatment. To remove a brain tumor, a neurosurgeon performs a craniotomy, which involves making an opening in the skull. If the tumor cannot be at least partially removed, the surgeon may do only a biopsy, in which a small piece of the tumor is removed so that a pathologist can examine it under a microscope to determine the type of cancer cells. This necessary information helps determine other forms of treatment.

Another procedure sometimes used is insertion of a shunt to drain cerebrospinal fluid. A shunt is a long, thin tube placed in the brain and then threaded under the skin to another part of the body, usually the abdomen. It works like a drainpipe, allowing excess fluid to be carried away from the brain and absorbed in the abdomen.

Complementary and Alternative Therapies

A comprehensive treatment plan for brain cancer may include a range of complementary and alternative therapies. Nutrients and herbs may protect against side effects from conventional therapies as well as enhance chemotherapy and support anticancer activities. Mind-body therapies such as meditation, relaxation techniques, yoga, and qi gong may reduce the effects of stress and enhance your quality of life and your response to treatment. Ask your team of health care providers about the best ways to incorporate these therapies into your overall treatment plan.

Eat only organically-raised foods. Include sea vegetables, garlic, onions, green tea, whole grains, fresh vegetables (especially dark green, yellow, and orange vegetables), legumes, protein, and anti-inflammatory oils (i.e., nuts, seeds, and cold-water fish) in your diet. Eliminate processed meats, refined foods, additives, sugar, artificial foods, alcohol, caffeine, saturated fats, and nitrosamines

Potentially beneficial nutrient supplements include the following. Herbs
Herbs are generally available as dried extracts (pills, capsules, or tablets), teas, or tinctures (alcohol extraction, unless otherwise noted). Dose for teas is 1 heaping tsp. per cup of water steeped for 10 minutes (roots need 20 minutes). Homeopathy
Homeopathy may help relieve symptoms and strengthen overall well-being.

While acupuncture is not used as a treatment for cancer itself, evidence suggests it can be a valuable therapy for cancer-related symptoms (particularly nausea and vomiting that often accompanies chemotherapy treatment). There have also been studies indicating that acupuncture may help reduce pain and shortness of breath. Acupressure (pressing on rather than needling acupuncture points) has also proved useful in controlling breathlessness; this is a technique that patients can learn and then use to treat themselves.

Some acupuncturists prefer to work with a patient only after the completion of conventional medical cancer therapy. Others will provide acupuncture and/or herbal therapy during active chemotherapy or radiation. Acupuncturists treat cancer patients based on an individualized assessment of the excesses and deficiencies of qi located in various meridians. In many cases of cancer-related symptoms, a qi deficiency is usually detected in the spleen or kidney meridians.

Prognosis/Possible Complications

The outlook varies greatly depending on the type of tumor and a variety of other factors. Some types of brain cancer have a five-year survival rate above 80 percent. Brain cancer has significant emotional and psychological effects. Patients who receive radiation therapy to large areas of the brain or certain anticancer drugs may have a higher risk of developing leukemia or a second tumor at a later time. Radiation that affects the eyes may lead to the later development of cataracts.

Following Up

Regular follow-up is very important after treatment, to make sure the tumor has not returned. Checkups usually include physical and neurologic exams and occasional CT scans or MRIs.


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