Under your skull, between your brain and the top of the neck, is an area called the skull base. The space is home to a platform where the brain sits. It’s also home to other important structures like blood vessels, nerves and your spinal cord. These nerves play an important role in how you see, hear, speak, swallow, breathe, taste and smell.
Skull base tumors can be anywhere inside this cavity. Because they can be so broad, there are many myths surrounding skull base tumors.
Myth 1: A bump on your skull is a symptom of skull base tumor.
Fact: Since the skull base is within the helmet of your skull, you won’t be able to feel a tumor the way you might be able to feel a swollen lymph node or a tumor in another part of your body.
Instead, when skull base tumors grow, you’ll experience symptoms caused by the tumor pressing against other structures inside your skull.
Blurry vision, double vision or changes in your perception of color could be symptoms of a tumor near your optic nerves.
If a tumor is pressing on the ears, you may feel dizzy, have trouble hearing or experience ringing in your ears. Tumors in the sinus cavity can affect your sense of smell or cause symptoms that mimic the common cold or a sinus infection.
Nerves in your skull control a lot of other major functions, including talking, walking and swallowing. Skull base tumors near these nerves can impact each of these functions.
Sometimes skull base tumors can affect your pituitary glands, which disrupt hormones. In women, this may cause irregular periods.
Since these symptoms can be signs of less serious conditions, it’s important to talk to your primary care doctor if you’re experiencing them without relief for more than two weeks.
Myth 2: All skull base tumors are cancerous.
Fact: Skull base tumors can be either cancerous or benign. The most common skull base tumor, meningioma, isn’t cancerous. Acoustic neuromas are also benign.
These benign tumors are often diagnosed by accident. For example, if a patient has an accidental fall and gets an MRI, they may learn about a tumor.
Whether or not your tumor is cancerous, it’s important to get the right diagnosis so you can get the right treatment and avoid long-term problems.
Myth 3: Skull base tumors aren’t curable.
Fact: The truth is, there isn’t an area of the skull base that we can’t treat.
But that wasn’t always the case. Until the early 1990s, skull base surgery wasn’t even classified as a specialty. Brain surgeons used to go as far down as they could go, and head and neck surgeons would go as far up as they could go. But there weren’t any skull base experts to surgically remove these tumors.
Now, MD Anderson is home to a world-renowned Skull Base Tumor Program with seven surgeons specifically dedicated to skull base tumors. But surgery is just one part of the equation.
We’ve also established less invasive surgical techniques, which limit our contact with the brain, reducing the risk of side effects. The goal is to get rid of the tumor while preserving the patient’s quality of life.
Sometimes, we may not even treat a tumor. At least, not right away. Some benign skull base tumors are slow growing and don’t cause any other problems. In those cases, surgery to remove the tumor could cause more problems than the tumor itself.
There are also other specialists that help patients recover from skull base tumor treatment. These include plastic and reconstructive surgeons, speech and swallowing therapists, dental and oral surgeons, and other experts depending on the area of the tumor and the treatment.
Myth 4: You can go anywhere for skull base tumor treatment.
Fact: Your life depends on where you go first for skull base tumor treatment. We often see patients at MD Anderson who’ve been misdiagnosed. When you don’t get the right diagnosis, you can’t get the right treatment. And unfortunately, if you start with the wrong treatment, your future treatment options may be limited.
It’s understandable to want to seek care close to home or with a doctor you’re familiar with, but expertise matters – especially with rare diseases like skull base tumors. But getting the right treatment the first time is key to overcoming skull base tumors.
At MD Anderson, we see hundreds of skull base tumors every year, and we have clinical trials dedicated to creating more effective treatment options for patients.
Even if it may take more time to get an appointment, taking the time to get the right diagnosis before you start treatment is the best way to ensure you get the right treatment and the fastest route to recovery.