An abnormal growth that results from the uncontrolled production of abnormal cells, brain tumors can have various effects on sufferers depending on the size, type and location as well as the general health and age of the sufferer.
Most often, tumors in the brain are grouped by how and where they developed, and are generally put into either the primary or metastatic classification. Primary tumors are found at the site of origin and they rarely spread to other areas of the brain or body. Further, they are judged to be either glial or non-glial tumors. On the other hand, metastatic, also known as secondary tumors, can and have spread to other parts of the body from their original site of development.
In looking at how the rate at which a tumor develops, physicians refer to them as either malignant (cancerous and life-threatening) or benign (non-cancerous and slow growing). Malignant tumors require immediate and often aggressive treatment, whereas benign tumors, depending on their location and size, are not dangerous and will only require removal if they are somehow impacting a part of the brain’s function.
Simply put, tumors are abnormal growths due to unnecessary cell multiplication that serves no proper function in the human body. Typically, cell multiplication is controlled by suppressor genes, which continually act to protect cells from cancer-causing genes known as oncogenes. However, when suppressor genes fail because of changes in their protein coding, tumor can develop as cell division becomes unregulated.
Whereas our body’s built-in defenses find and destroy these abnormal cells, naturally occurring chemicals sometimes hamper the ability of our immune system to see these cells, as which point they become strong enough and exist in large enough numbers to overpower any of body’s defenses.
Because there are several different types and forms of brain tumors, the signs and symptoms can vary widely from person to person and are also contingent on the tumor’s size and location. Most common symptoms include chronic headaches (accompanied with vomiting and vision problems); seizures; drastic changes in mood or behavior; memory loss and impaired thinking coupled with difficulties with speech; chronic tiredness; and a loss of sensation in the extremities combined with coordination issues.
To diagnosis a tumor, a physician will perform a host of testing to determine a patient’s mental (neurological) and physical health. Hearing, vision, muscle strength, balance, coordination and memory will all be examined, and if the presence of a tumor is suspected imaging technologies such as x-rays, CT scans or MRIs will also be utilized to determine location and size. A biopsy may also be performed to diagnosis the tumor as malignant or benign.
If the tumor is shown to be growing slowly or not growing at all—and isn’t impacting any of the brain’s functions by exerting pressure on adjacent tissue—a physician may recommend a careful monitoring scenario that will keep track of the tumor and watch for changes. If however the tumor is life threatening due to a malignant nature or if it is growing quickly and impacting the brain, radiation therapy or chemotherapy may be utilized and a craniotomy—a surgical procedure that allows a surgeon to treat the tumor directly—may be necessary.
While under general anesthesia, a patient’s head is secured to prevent movement during the craniotomy. A surgeon begins by making an incision and pushes away skin and muscle structures. One or possibly more small holes are drilled into the bone of the skull, and a saw is used to cut between the holes and remove a section known as the bone flap. The outermost membrane covering the brain—the dura—is now visible and accessible, and the surgeon cuts through this layer to reach the brain itself.
Once the tumor is found, the surgeon isolates it from the surrounding brain tissue and removes all or as much of the tumor as possible. The dura is then closed and the bone flap is returned to its original position and secured in place by plates and screws, and the skin is restored and sutured or stapled shut.
Post-craniotomy, a patient will typically be taken to an intensive care unit for monitoring and recovery from anesthesia, and they may be placed on a ventilator to assist with breathing. Once the patient is awake, physicians will check for normal breathing ability and that body movements are intact, and that there are no physical or mental complications as result of the surgery. A hospital stay lasts a few days, and patients will most likely receive some form of rehabilitation to help them return to normal daily activities.