As painful as the throbbing and piercing of headache may be, usually it’s nothing more than a passing annoyance.
But for the over 21,000 people a year who find out they have a cancerous brain tumor, headache often is the first symptom.
Headache caused by a brain tumor distinguishes itself on several counts. Unlike a garden-variety headache, it tends to be persistent—and quite severe. Frequently, the headache is present at night or upon awakening. And anyone who experiences frequent headaches for the first time in his or her life should have them checked out.
In the early stages, brain tumors may cause other symptoms, such as poor balance and coordination, dizziness, double vision and seizures. It’s important to see your doctor if you begin experiencing such symptoms. To find out if they are caused by a tumor, your doctor will probably recommend that you have a computed tomography (CT) or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scan.
Treatment of cancerous brain tumors depends on their location and type. Fortunately, many tumors can be surgically removed without doing damage to the healthy part of the brain. And even in cases where surgeons are not able to remove a tumor entirely, they may be able to reduce its size and relieve pressure within the brain. Surgery for cancerous brain tumors is usually followed by chemotherapy, radiation or both. The combination of surgery and follow-up treatment can help shrink a tumor and keep it under control for several months and, in some cases, years. Sometimes a shunt (a flexible tube) is inserted to drain excess fluid from the brain.
There’s no question that a diagnosis of brain cancer is dire. However, technology such as high-powered microscopes, stereotactic imagery (computer imaging that gives doctors a three-dimensional view of the brain) and ultrasonic aspirators that break tumors apart and suck up the fragments through a vacuum-like device allows surgeons to reach tumors that would have been inaccessible just 15 years ago. Today, lasers let surgeons shrink some tumors without operating, and researchers are developing gene-therapy approaches that include programming the body to attack the cancerous cells and instructing the cancer cells themselves to self-destruct.
As researchers learn more about tumors that affect the brain and central nervous system, patients and doctors alike can look forward to greater and more effective treatment options.