Topic updated: July 2012

Brain Cancer

The Brain

The brain is a soft, spongy mass of tissue. It is protected by:

The brain directs the things we choose to do (like walking and talking) and the things our body does without thinking (like breathing). The brain is also in charge of our senses (sight, hearing, touch, taste, and smell), memory, emotions, and personality.

A network of nerves carries messages back and forth between the brain and the rest of the body. Some nerves go directly from the brain to the eyes, ears, and other parts of the head. Other nerves run through the spinal cord to connect the brain with the other parts of the body.

Within the brain and spinal cord, glial cells surround nerve cells and hold them in place.

The three major parts of the brain control different activities:

Risk Factors

When you're told that you have a brain tumor, it's natural to wonder what may have caused your disease. But no one knows the exact causes of brain tumors. Doctors seldom know why one person develops a brain tumor and another doesn't.

Researchers are studying whether people with certain risk factors are more likely than others to develop a brain tumor. A risk factor is something that may increase the chance of getting a disease.

Studies have found the following risk factors for brain tumors:

  • Ionizing radiation: Ionizing radiation from high dose x-rays (such as radiation therapy from a large machine aimed at the head) and other sources can cause cell damage that leads to a tumor. People exposed to ionizing radiation may have an increased risk of a brain tumor, such as meningioma or glioma.
  • Family history: It is rare for brain tumors to run in a family. Only a very small number of families have several members with brain tumors.

Researchers are studying whether using cell phones, having had a head injury, or having been exposed to certain chemicals at work or to magnetic fields are important risk factors. Studies have not shown consistent links between these possible risk factors and brain tumors, but additional research is needed.

Symptoms

The symptoms of a brain tumor depend on tumor size, type, and location. Symptoms may be caused when a tumor presses on a nerve or harms a part of the brain. Also, they may be caused when a tumor blocks the fluid that flows through and around the brain, or when the brain swells because of the buildup of fluid.

These are the most common symptoms of brain tumors:

  • Headaches (usually worse in the morning)
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Changes in speech, vision, or hearing
  • Problems balancing or walking
  • Changes in mood, personality, or ability to concentrate
  • Problems with memory
  • Muscle jerking or twitching (seizures or convulsions)
  • Numbness or tingling in the arms or legs

Most often, these symptoms are not due to a brain tumor. Another health problem could cause them. If you have any of these symptoms, you should tell your doctor so that problems can be diagnosed and treated.

Read the rest of this informative article about brain tumors at the National Cancer Institute.

image of the human brain as a scan

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