There are 120 types of brain tumors described in the master neuro-pathology handbook, according to the World Health Organization. While there are many different types of brain tumors, most are extremely rare.
“The types of brain tumors that Dr. Weinberg and I see most often are gliomas and specifically glioblastomas,” Weathers says. “They are not only the most common, but also the most aggressive.”
The Central Brain Tumor Registry of the United States shows that the three most common brain tumor diagnoses include meningioma, glioblastoma and tumors of the pituitary gland. Most pituitary tumors are non-cancerous growths.
Tumors are caused by changes in the DNA of cells. When cells start dividing in a manner that is not controllable, this causes a mass.
Weinberg explains it like this: “Imagine your desk covered with salt, and then sprinkle pepper on top of the salt,” he says. “Those tiny pepper flakes scattered throughout are the tumor cells that have walked away from the mass. The difficulty in treating a tumor is not the mass. I can remove it through surgery. The hard part is treating the tumor cells that are left behind, where chemotherapy has difficulty getting to.”
Often, patients worry that everyday items, like cell phones and hair dye, cause brain tumors. These different exposures might seem toxic, but have not been proven to cause brain tumors. Weathers confirms that the only known risk factor for developing a brain tumor is previous exposure to ionizing radiation. “This might apply to patients who were diagnosed with leukemia at a younger age who underwent radiation treatment to the brain. As a result of that direct radiation exposure to their brain as a child, they are at high risk for developing a secondary brain tumor.”
Some rare genetic cancer syndromes, such as Li-Fraumeni Syndrome, also increase the risk of a brain tumor diagnosis in addition to other cancer diagnoses.
How common is a brain tumor diagnosis?
A brain tumor diagnosis is considered rare compared to other cancer types. “Most general oncology practices in the community may only see a few patients with a diagnosis such as a glioblastoma a year,” says Weathers.
About 700,000 Americans are living with a primary brain tumor, according to the Central Brain Tumor Registry of the United States. Approximately 70% of all brain tumors are benign (non-cancerous), and 30% are malignant (cancerous).
If I have a brain tumor, can I pass it on to my children?
Brain tumors, in general, are not hereditary, unless you have a rare hereditary cancer syndrome like Li-Fraumeni Syndrome. “The overwhelming majority of brain tumors are sporadic or random without risk of passing the diagnosis to your children,” says Weathers.
What treatment options are available for patients with a brain tumor diagnosis?
Treatment depends on the type of brain tumor, as well as the tumor size and location.
“For a newly diagnosed tumor, first we determine the actual tumor type. This can be identified through a biopsy or preferably surgery to safely remove as much of the tumor as possible,” says Weinberg. “If we cannot perform a resection safely or cannot remove enough of the tumor, we will confirm the diagnosis through a biopsy.”
What should I look for when deciding where to seek brain tumor treatment?
Every patient who visits MD Anderson’s Brain and Spine Center for brain tumor treatment receives personalized care from the nation’s top brain tumor experts. We have one of the most active programs in the country for treatment of benign and malignant brain tumors.
“Because brain tumors are rare, you need a team with the highest level of expertise,” says Weathers. “Brain tumors often carry a poor prognosis, so it matters where you go first for treatment. I tell patients that it can make a big difference in the long run to come some place like MD Anderson from the beginning. We have a dedicated multidisciplinary team of more than 70 highly trained brain tumor experts who will work together to develop a personalized treatment plan for your specific case.”
Weinberg adds: “It might be your first time dealing with a brain tumor, but it’s not ours.”