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5 brain tumor symptoms you shouldn't ignore

There’s no more serious diagnosis in all of human medicine than a brain tumor, doctors say. May is Brain Tumor Awareness Month.
by A. Pawlowski / / Source: TODAY

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If you were to pick a case to illustrate the abrupt, random, frightening nature of brain tumors, it might be the experience of Maria Menounos.

The 39-year-old TV personality discovered she had a golf ball-sized growth pushing on her facial nerves last year after experiencing dizziness, headaches and slurred speech. Doctors removed the tumor during surgery last June.

May is Brain Tumor Awareness Month, dedicated to the 700,000 Americans living with a brain tumor and the estimated 79,000 who will be diagnosed this year, according to the National Brain Tumor Society. Brain tumors are equal opportunity culprits, affecting men and women of all ages and races, experts said. Sen. John McCain became one of the most high-profile patients when he was diagnosed with brain cancer last summer.

“There’s no more serious diagnosis in all of human medicine than a brain tumor because it not only is a medical issue that has to be treated, but it actually affects the psyche, the soul of the entire personhood of a human being,” Dr. Steven Kalkanis, chair of neurosurgery at Henry Ford Health System and medical director of the Henry Ford Cancer Institute in Detroit, told TODAY.

“Brain tumors are terrible in lots of ways,” added Dr. Glenn Lesser, a neuro-oncologist at Wake Forest Baptist Health in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. “They can be very aggressive and kill people quickly.”

Why are they dangerous?

There are more than 120 types of brain and central nervous system tumors, ranging from benign to malignant, according to the National Brain Tumor Society. Meningioma — the type Menounos had — is overwhelmingly benign and most patients go on to live a normal life, Lesser said.

Glioblastoma — the tumor McCain is being treated for — is the most common and deadliest malignant brain tumor in adults. The median survival rate is about 15 months.

All growths must be treated since the brain is in a confined space that has no give or take to it. Even a “benign” tumor can press on and damage surrounding brain tissue, both doctors said.

“Most of the brain is very highly valued real estate. There’s just not a lot of extra room for tumors, benign or malignant, to grow without causing a problem,” Lesser noted.

Why do they form?

Overwhelmingly, it’s a random event, both doctors said. “It’s a mistake in cell division that could happen at any time. Thankfully, it’s rare,” Kalkanis noted.

Brain tumors mostly strike people without a family history. At this time, there’s no known way to reduce your risk, the American Cancer Society advises. The most important thing you can do is not to ignore the warning signs.

The lesions have different treatment options and prognoses, and the symptoms can depend on where in the brain the tumor is located.

"There’s no more serious diagnosis in all of human medicine than a brain tumor."

But certain signs make neurosurgeons especially concerned. They include:

1. Headaches that are getting worse

In a previously healthy person, headaches that are intensifying in frequency and pain — especially when associated with nausea and vomiting — are the most common symptom. They can be splitting or less severe, but stick around a long time. That suggests there’s elevated pressure inside the skull, which could indicate there’s something growing in the brain, Kalkanis said.

Classically, the headaches are worse in the early morning upon awakening, but that’s not always the case, Lesser said. Sometimes, specific areas of the head are affected more than others, he added.

Headaches that are from a growing tumor typically don’t respond to headache medications like aspirin, both doctors noted.

Disclaimer: The overwhelming majority of headaches don’t represent brain tumors, Lesser said.

“The whole world has headaches so anyone with a headache should not be worried about having a brain tumor,” Kalkanis added, noting it’s the persistent, worsening headaches accompanied by other symptoms that need to be checked out.

2. Weakness, numbness or balance problems

A person may suddenly have difficulty walking or maintaining their equilibrium. You may notice motor changes on one side of the body or one limb. That can manifest as clumsiness — perhaps dropping things with your right hand, not being able to tie your shoes or button a shirt, Lesser said.

3. Vision changes

Troublesome signs may include blurry vision, double vision, extreme sensitivity to light or discomfort with a lot of eye movement.

A brain tumor may also knock out the fibers that connect the eyes to the back of the brain, causing a visual field cut — or black spots your vision, Lesser said. You may suddenly start bumping into walls or other objects because you no longer see them.

4. Seizures

Not all seizures mean you have a tumor, but tumors can definitely cause seizures, Kalkanis said.

5. Confusion or mental status changes

Families may notice subtle but distinctly abnormal changes in a person’s behavior: A loved one may leave the stove on when she would have never done that before, or she may get lost driving in a familiar neighborhood, Lesser said.

He’s seen brain tumors cause personality changes in patients, turning a loving spouse into an aggressive and argumentative stranger; or transforming a pillar of the family into someone who is disinterested and disengaged.

Treatment

Patients with malignant tumors, like glioblastoma, undergo surgery to remove the visible growth, then receive radiation and chemotherapy. Benign tumors may require only surgery. Glioblastoma patients may use Optune — a cap-like device that sends a low-dose electrical current through the brain and offers a survival advantage, Lesser said. But more advances are desperately needed in the field, which is behind the curve compared to other cancers, he noted.

Still, doctors continue to learn more.

“Even though a diagnosis of a brain tumor is very scary, there’s never been a time when there’s been more hope,” Kalkanis said.

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