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May is Brain Tumor Awareness Month, an opportunity to increase our understanding of these rare tumors and how they can impact our physical and mental health.
Brain tumors can appear in any part of the brain.
Swedish neuro-oncologist Kester Phillips, M.D., discusses new treatment options.
Over the past 10 years, you’ve likely heard several high-profile names linked to brain tumor diagnoses. Senators Edward Kennedy and John McCain, as well as President Joe Biden’s son, Beau, all fought lengthy battles with brain cancer.
Though brain tumors are relatively rare, they can be deadly. You have less than a 1% chance of developing one in your lifetime, but five- to 10-year survival rates hover around 30%. In fact, in 2022, approximately 25,000 American adults will be diagnosed with a brain or spinal tumor, and approximately 18,250 will die from the condition. Even though these tumors can be aggressive, most people don’t know much about them.
Depending on how quickly brain tumors grow, you may or may not notice symptoms. Brain Tumor Awareness month — recognized every May — is a great time to learn more about what these tumors are, what symptoms they cause and how doctors treat them.
“People know brain tumors exist, but they don’t really know what they are,” says Kester Phillips, M.D., a neuro-oncologist with the Ben and Catherine Ivy Center for Advanced Brain Tumor Treatment. “This is an unknown area of medicine for most people, so it’s important to talk about what brain tumors are and how they can affect people.”
If you are experiencing them, recognizing the symptoms associated with brain tumors can help you seek treatment earlier.
Why is brain tumor awareness important?
Unfortunately, there’s been very little progress toward new treatment options for brain tumors. Through education and events, including the Swedish Brain Cancer Walk, Swedish is trying to change that. Both are critical to increasing understanding and financial support for research efforts, Dr. Phillips says. Launched in 2008, the cancer walk has raised more than $1.9 million for research, clinical trials, patient care and advocacy.
“[The Swedish Brain Cancer Walk] helps raise awareness and funding for novel therapies,” he says. “Much is needed because the needle hasn’t moved significantly for brain tumor therapies like it has for lung cancer, breast cancer or melanoma. We don’t have good treatment options that promote survival.”
Swedish neuro-oncologists use these donations to continue developing and testing potential therapy options.
Identifying a brain tumor
Brain tumors affect the body’s mission control, but diagnosis — the first part of the patient journey — usually happens by surprise. Masses are typically either discovered as part of other routine health exams, such as getting a dental X-ray for oral surgery, or they cause an abrupt problem, such as a seizure.
“A patient’s life changes in a flash. Many of my patients describe it as if they were hit by a bus, and they have no idea what happened,” Dr. Phillips says. “The first step of diagnosis is usually a shocker. Patients just aren’t aware. Suddenly, they wake up with a seizure, headache or nagging nausea — just weird stuff.”
Some brain tumors are slow-growing, such as meningiomas, which develop on the outside of the brain and rarely cause symptoms. Symptoms frequently appear with more aggressive tumors, such as glioblastoma. You could experience any of these signs:
- Frequent or worsening seizures
- Recurring headaches
- Frequent nausea and vomiting
- Tingling in arms and legs
- Numbness in the face, arms, legs and feet.
- Possible stroke
- Changes in speech
- Changes in cognition
Tumors can also prompt other symptoms depending on where they develop in the brain, including the front, side or base. Some location-specific symptoms include:
- Memory lapses
- Aggressive, irritable behaviors
- Loss of vision on one side
- Worsening depression
- Schizophrenia, psychosis or other psychiatric issues
Initial treatment options
Whether a tumor is slow-growing or aggressive, meeting with a neurosurgeon is the next step in the treatment journey. If the tumor can be surgically removed, an operation will be scheduled.
Unfortunately, Dr. Phillips says, surgery isn’t always an option.
“Some tumors are located in regions of the brain where going in surgically will harm the patient,” he says. “It can cause complications like strokes, and we avoid doing that.”
For these patients, doctors collect and test a tissue sample of the tumor (a biopsy). Based on the results, patients usually receive chemotherapy or targeted radiation treatment that concentrates radiation specifically on the tumor.
Leading-edge treatment options
Currently, there are few other treatment options available for patients who can’t have their tumors surgically removed. Swedish neuro-oncologists are working on new ones. They’re participating in several clinical trials that could lead to innovative medical therapies, Dr. Phillips says.
“At Swedish, we are involved in several efforts that are focused on attacking brain tumors in new and different ways,” he says. “We’re looking for ways to treat those tumors that come back even after surgery, radiation, or chemotherapy.”
These clinical trials focus on:
- Recurrent tumors: The medication Berubicin has greater success in reaching tumors. It can cross the blood-brain barrier that prevents toxins from entering the brain and bypass the pumps in the brain that typically flush out chemotherapy medications. If effective, this therapy could be used to treat glioblastoma that returns.
- Stem cells: Using a combination of drugs, researchers are focusing on glioma stem cells, tumor cells that can self-renew and grow into different types of cells. The goal is to prevent these cells from developing and causing the tumor to return.
- Genetic markers: Based on DNA evidence, researchers are using a group of medications to attack specific mutations that are responsible for tumor growth.
Support for patients and caregivers
If you’ve received a brain tumor diagnosis, you and your family aren’t alone, Dr. Phillips says. The Patient and Caregiver Support Group at Swedish offers a place where you can learn from a brain tumor expert, discuss your feelings and share information with others in your same situation.
“Our support group is available to patients, caregivers and family. All are welcome,” he says. “Our social worker talks with everyone about coping mechanisms, psychiatric issues and bereavement, as well as sensitive issues like family planning or intimacy. We do our best to hold our patients’ hands through their entire journey.”
Find a doctor
Whether you require an in-person visit or want to consult a doctor virtually, you have options. Swedish Virtual Care connects you face-to-face with a nurse practitioner who can review your symptoms, provide instruction and follow up as needed. If you need to find a doctor, you can use our provider directory.
Join our Patient and Family Advisory Council.
This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your health care professional's instructions.
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