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What causes brain tumors? Brain tumor treatment, prognosis and more

Do cell phones cause brain tumors? Can the ketogenic diet cure glioblastoma? Doctors weigh in.
magnetic resonance image (MRI) of the brain
/ Source: TODAY

Brain tumors come with some of the most life-disrupting symptoms in the human experience: extreme headaches, vertigo, personality changes and balance problems.

They’re also unpredictable, making most anyone vulnerable to a diagnosis.

In a new interview, singer Taylor Swift revealed her mother has been diagnosed with a brain tumor that was found while the 62-year-old was undergoing chemotherapy for breast cancer.

"The symptoms of what a person goes through when they have a brain tumor is nothing like what we've ever been through with her cancer before,'' Swift told Variety. "So it's just been a really hard time for us as a family."

Earlier this month, Neil Peart — the drummer and lyricist for the band Rush — died of glioblastoma, an especially aggressive and lethal form of brain cancer that also claimed the life of Sen. John McCain.

Swift didn't say what type of brain tumor her mother was diagnosed with, but even benign brain tumors can be deadly if not treated in time, said Dr. Minesh Mehta, deputy director and chief of radiation oncology at the Miami Cancer Institute.

“The major reason that makes brain tumors dangerous is location, location, location. There is not a portion of the brain that is irrelevant or trivial or useless,” Mehta told TODAY.

“Any tumor in any location of the brain has significant potential for causing some harm to the patient… especially in the context that the brain lives within a closed box — the skull. There’s no place for expansion.”

With so much at stake, it’s important to understand the facts. Here are 10 common brain tumor myths to know about:

1. Cell phones cause brain cancer

Cell phones use low levels of radiofrequency energy. How does that affect people who spend much of the day with a phone pressed against their ear? At this time, there isn’t science to link health problems to cell phone use, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention noted.

The most accurate studies follow people for decades, but large-scale cell phone use hasn’t been around that long.

“What we can safely say is that over a dozen studies in the literature — large studies, following patients for five to 10 years — have not shown any categorical evidence of increased risk of developing brain tumors with cell phone usage,” Mehta said.

“What about 20, 30 years of use? Obviously, we just don’t have the data for that.”

Right now, the most consistent health risk associated with cell phone use is distracted driving and car accidents, the National Cancer Institute noted.

2. Consuming aspartame causes brain tumors

The artificial sweetener has been used in sodas, chewing gum and other foods since the 1980s.

As it was tested, very large “mega” doses were fed to rodents — far greater than what any human would consume — as part of the research process, and some of the animals developed certain tumors, Mehta said, leading to rumors and concerns.

“But there’s no evidence that they actually developed brain tumors,” he said. “In humans, there’s absolutely no evidence that occurs.”

Aspartame is “one of the most exhaustively studied substances in the human food supply,” with more than 100 studies supporting its safety, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration noted.

3. Doctors know why brain tumors develop

Most of the time, the cause is a mystery, according the American Brain Tumor Association. The vast majority of glioblastomas occur randomly, for example.

It can be “just bad luck,” said Dr. Manish Sharma, a neurosurgeon at Mayo Clinic Health System in Mankato, Minnesota, who treated a 24-year-old woman who developed a golf-ball size benign brain tumor.

Some brain tumors are linked with genetic disorders, including neurofibromatosis, tuberous sclerosis, and Li-Fraumeni syndrome.

Unnecessary exposure to radiation, including excessive dental X-rays, can also increase the risk of developing tumors, Mehta said. “You have to weigh the risk versus the benefit,” he noted. “Sometimes the benefit of X-raying your teeth far outweighs anything else.”

4. Brain cancer is rare and usually occurs in adults

Brain tumors affect all ages, genders and ethnicities, with more than 700,000 Americans living with a brain tumor today, according the American Brain Tumor Association. Brain tumors are the second most common cancer among children 14 and younger.

5. The ketogenic diet can cure glioblastoma

No diet can cure glioblastoma, noted Dr. Shiao-Pei Weathers, a brain tumor specialist at The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center.

“The idea that you can ‘starve’ glioblastoma through diet is a myth,” she wrote in response to online claims that the ultra low-carb, high-fat eating plan may have benefits for patients. “Glioblastoma patients need nutrients — including carbohydrates — to keep their bodies strong through treatment.”

Overall, studies show animals that are fed a “massively calorie restricted diet” age slower and develop fewer tumors in their bodies, but there’s no evidence that’s true in humans, Mehta noted. People would have to cut down their daily calorie consumption by more than 50% over their lifetimes to mimic this drastic eating plan, which would be almost impossible to achieve, he added.

6. Superfoods can prevent brain cancer

Foods high in antioxidants, including blueberries, beans and nuts, have been touted as promoting good health by helping combat free radical damage.

“But there’s no evidence that there’s a known superfood that actually protects individuals from developing tumors,” Mehta noted.

7. Cutting sugar from the diet can prevent brain tumors

Avoiding sugar is good for overall health, but it’s not going to stop a tumor from growing, Mehta said. Tumors are very efficient in obtaining their nutritional needs from the host — the human.

8. Benign brain tumors are not serious

Benign tumors in other parts of the body don’t pose that much risk, but that’s not the case when they develop in the brain.

“Because of the fact they’re growing, and compressing the brain and injuring the brain, they definitely have the potential to become very serious,” Mehta noted. They just take a longer time to become dangerous because they grow slower.

9. Once removed, a brain tumor doesn’t grow again

Unfortunately, that’s an “absolute myth,” Mehta said.

During brain surgery, it’s often impossible for doctors to know where the tumor ends and normal brain begins. Microscopic cells from the mass may infiltrate into the surrounding tissue and grow back with time. That’s why many patients undergo radiation or chemotherapy after their brain tumors are removed.

10. There’s no hope for brain tumor patients

There are more than 120 different types of primary brain tumors and — with the exception of glioblastoma — doctors have made “dramatic improvement in the outcome for many of these patients,” Mehta said.

Advances in surgical techniques, anesthesia, radiation therapy and targeted drugs mean surgery is safer, survival is longer and the quality of life is better for many brain tumor patients.