Brain cancer is the result of cancerous cell growth in your brain. The cancer cells form tumors that can be slow-growing or fast-growing depending on the type of tumor.

Treatment for brain cancer focuses on removing the tumor and then destroying any remaining cancer cells. New developments in brain cancer treatments are improving brain cancer survival rates, especially for slow-growing tumors.

This article will give you an overview of brain cancer and brain tumors, symptoms to be aware of, and current treatment options.

Primary brain cancer, also known simply as brain cancer, is an overgrowth of cells in your brain that forms masses called brain tumors. This is different than cancer which starts in another part of your body and spreads to your brain. When that happens, it’s called secondary or metastasized brain cancer.

Some types of cancerous brain tumors can grow very quickly. These malignant tumors can disrupt the way your body works. Brain tumors can be life threatening and need to be treated as soon as they’re detected.

Brain cancer is quite uncommon. According to estimates from the American Cancer Society, people have less than a 1 percent chance of developing a malignant brain tumor in their lifetime.

The symptoms of brain cancer depend on the size and location of the brain tumor. Brain cancer shares many symptoms with several less serious conditions, especially in the early stages.

Many of these symptoms are incredibly common and unlikely to indicate brain cancer. But if you’ve been experiencing these symptoms for more than a week, if they’ve come on suddenly, if they’re not relieved by over-the-counter pain medications, or if you’re alarmed by any of them, it’s a good idea to have them checked out by a doctor.

Common brain cancer symptoms include:

The prognosis for brain cancer is greatly improved by early detection. If you experience any of the above symptoms with regularity or think that your symptoms might be more significant, see a doctor as soon as possible for an evaluation.

The exact cause of primary brain cancer is unknown. But studies have shown a link between exposure to high doses of ionizing radiation and an increased risk of brain cancer. Most common sources of ionizing radiation come from frequent medical imaging tests (CT scans, X-rays), radiation therapy treatments, and possible workplace exposure.

Other risk factors that might be related to developing brain cancer include:

  • increased age
  • a family history of brain cancer
  • long-term smoking
  • exposure to pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizer
  • working with elements that can cause cancer, like lead, plastic, rubber, petroleum, and some textiles
  • having an Epstein-Barr virus infection, or mononucleosis

Secondary brain cancer, the type of brain cancer that occurs when cancer that began in another part of your body spreads to your brain, is more likely to be caused by some types of cancer than others.

Cancers that commonly spread, or metastasize, to the brain include:

Brain tumors are named based on where they’re located in your brain or upper spine. Tumors are also given a grade. The grade of a tumor tells you how fast it’s expected to grow. Grades go from 1 to 4, with grade 1 growing the slowest and grade 4 growing the fastest.

Some of the most common types of brain tumors include:

  • Glioma. Gliomas are brain tumors that originate in the glial cells and account for about 3 out of 10 cases of brain cancer.
  • Astrocytoma. Astrocytomas are a type of glioma that include glioblastomas, the fast-growing type of brain tumor.
  • Meningioma. Often benign and slow-growing, meningioma tumors grow in the tissue that surrounds your brain and spinal cord and are the most common type of brain tumor in adults.
  • Ganglioglioma. Gangliogliomas are slow-growing tumors found in the neurons and glial cells that can normally be treated with surgery.
  • Craniopharyngiomas. Craniopharyngiomas are slow-growing tumors that form between the pituitary gland and the brain and often press on optic nerves, resulting in vision difficulties.
  • Schwannomas. Schwannomas are slow-growing tumors that form around the cranial nerves are almost always benign.
  • Medulloblastoma. Medulloblastomas are fast-growing tumors that form on the brain’s nerve cells and are more common in children.

If you have symptoms of a brain tumor, your doctor may perform one of the following to make a diagnosis:

  • a neurological examination to determine if a tumor is affecting your brain
  • imaging tests, like CT, MRI, and positron emission tomography (PET) scans, to locate the tumor
  • a lumbar puncture, which is a procedure that collects a small sample of the fluid that surrounds your brain and spinal cord, to check for cancer cells
  • a brain biopsy, which is a surgical procedure in which a small amount of the tumor is removed for diagnostic testing and to determine if your tumor is malignant

There are several treatments for brain cancer. Treatment for primary brain cancer will be different from treatment for cancers that have metastasized from other sites.

You may receive one or more treatments depending on the type, size, and location of your brain tumor. Your age and general health will also be factors.

Brain tumor treatments include:

  • Surgery. Brain surgery is is the most common treatment for brain tumors. Depending on location of the tumor, it might be able to be removed fully, partially, or not all.
  • Chemotherapy. These drugs can destroy cancer cells in your brain and shrink your tumor. You might recieve chemotherapy orally or intravenously.
  • Radiation therapy. This technique uses high-energy waves, like X-rays, to destroy tumor tissue and cancer cells that can’t be surgically removed.
  • Combination therapy. Receiving chemotherapy and radiation therapy at the same time is called combination therapy.
  • Biologic drugs. These drugs boost, direct, or restore your body’s natural defenses against your tumor. For example, immunotherapy is a commonly used class of biologic drug that works by increasing your immune system’s ability to target and fight cancer.
  • Other medications. Your doctor may prescribe medications to treat symptoms and side effects caused by your brain tumor and brain cancer treatments.
  • Clinical trials. In advanced cases of brain cancer that don’t respond to treatment, clinical trial therapies and medications may be used. These are treatments that are still in the testing phase. Clinical trails for brain cancer could include an immunotherapy trial and a CAR T cell therapy trial.
  • Rehabilitation. You might need to attend rehabilitation sessions if your cancer or treatment has affected your ability to talk, walk, or perform other daily functions. Rehabilitation includes physical therapy, occupational therapy, and other therapies that can help you relearn activities.
  • Alternative therapies. There isn’t much scientific research that supports using alternative therapies to treat brain cancer. But some healthcare professionals do recommend steps like a blanced diet and vitamin and mineral supplementation to replace nutrients lost from your cancer treatment. Talk with your doctor before you change your diet, take any supplements or herbs, or pursue any other alternative therapies.

There’s no way to prevent brain cancer, but you can reduce your risk by avoiding:

  • exposure to pesticides and insecticides
  • exposure to carcinogenic chemicals
  • smoking
  • unnecessary exposure to radiation

Brain cancer is a frightening diagnosis to receive, but new treatments and research are improving the odds and increasing the survival rates for people with brain cancer.

The exact 5-year survival rates vary widely between types of brain tumors and factors like your age at diagnosis and the stage of the tumor. For instance, meningiomas are the most common brain tumor type in adults. They have a 5-year survival rate of 84 percent for adults between 20 and 44 and 74 percent for adults between 55 and 64.

Keep in mind that those numbers are based on past data, and current survival rates are likely to be even higher. Your doctor can talk with you about the stage of your brain tumor and your individual outlook.