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Vulnerability in Brain Tumors Informs New Treatments

November 2, 2022

Receiving the diagnosis of a brain tumor is a stressful and often scary experience. However, treatments are available for the many types of brain tumors. The treatment options have evolved considerably over the years, and medical breakthroughs have decreased the mortality rate. Learning more about your brain tumor and the different treatment options for benign vs malignant brain tumors is an important first step as you navigate through the months ahead.

Understanding Brain Tumors

When cells grow abnormally or form a mass, the result is a brain tumor. Because the skull surrounds the brain, there is no extra space available for the brain to expand. As a result, increased growth of the tumor may result in pressure, brain damage and eventually death. There are both benign and malignant brain tumors. Malignant tumors are cancerous, but both types of tumors can grow and require treatment. Benign tumors usually have a slower growth rate and will not metastasize to other areas of the body. Because they have well-defined borders, surgical removal may be easier and more successful. Brain tumor symptoms can be extensive and may vary based on the tumor type. Some of these include severe headaches, clumsiness, blurred vision, confusion, nausea, memory loss, sensory loss, numbness, difficulty speaking and more. 

Types of Brain Tumors

There are both primary and secondary brain tumors. Primary tumors start in the brain’s cells or membranes, nerve cells or glands. The two main types of primary tumors are meningiomas and gliomas. However, there are several other types of primary brain tumors, including pituitary tumors, craniopharyngiomas, pineal gland tumors, ependymomas and more. If you have a secondary tumor, it will be malignant cancer. These are cancers that have started in other areas and have metastasized to the brain. Cancers of the skin, kidneys, breasts and lungs often spread to the brain.

Brain Tumor Risk Factors

There are several brain tumor risk factors that are commonly associated with tumor development. Up to 10% of brain tumors are believed to be inherited through family genes. A genetic consultation can help you to determine this risk. In addition, older adults are more likely to be diagnosed with a brain tumor than their younger counterparts. Individuals who have been exposed to carcinogenic chemicals, such as in a workplace or another environment, are at an increased risk. Other brain tumor risk factors include exposure to radiation and not having childhood chickenpox.

Brain Tumor Diagnosis

Regardless of whether you have symptoms of benign vs malignant brain tumors, your doctor will initially complete a thorough physical exam and a review of your medical history. Everything from your vision and memory to your balance, muscle strength and more will be reviewed based on your brain tumor symptoms. Specialized diagnostic tests may also be ordered. These include a CT scan, an MRI, a skull x-ray and an angiogram. A biopsy will also be performed to determine if the mass is malignant or benign and where in the body it originated. 

Brain Tumor Treatment

There are several brain tumor treatment options available, and the specific treatment that your doctor recommends will be based on your overall health and the tumor’s type, size and location. Generally, cancer treatment for malignant tumors is the surgical removal of the mass. Surgery may also be recommended for risky benign tumors. 

Often, cancer treatment also includes chemotherapy and radiation therapy after surgery. Radiation therapy involves targeting high-energy particles or x-rays at the tumor. This may be through external-beam radiation or internal radiation therapy. The tumor may be targeted via a three-dimensional CRT, by using MRI and CT scans or through intensity modulated radiation therapy. Tumor targeting with radiation may also be done through proton therapy, stereotactic radiosurgery and fractionated stereotactic radiation therapy.

Chemotherapy involves the use of strong drugs to kill tumor cells. This type of treatment may be administered on a regular schedule for a limited period of time. Targeted therapy is a type of chemotherapy, and it is used to specifically focus on the tissue environment or the tumor’s proteins and genes.

Medications may also be used for cancer treatment. These may be administered directly into the blood via an IV tube or a port, or they are ingested orally. Medications include chemotherapy and targeted therapy drugs. Some of the drugs that may be used are carmustine, temozolomide, lomustine, procarbazine and vincristine. A new medication, letrozole, is currently being researched as well. Currently approved to treat breast cancer, it is now being researched as a treatment for glioblastomas. It works by targeting aromatase, which is a growth enzyme in cancer cells. 

A medical breakthrough has led to the use of alternating electric therapy. This treatment uses electrodes to create an electric field around the skull. Compared to chemotherapy, it produces fewer side effects and may be just as effective. It exclusively treats glioblastomas. 

There are numerous treatments available for benign and malignant brain tumors, and research continues to produce advances in this area. Connect with your medical team to learn more about the treatments that may be right for your specific type of tumor.