Coping with a brain tumor can be difficult. Brain tumor symptoms and side effects from treatment can include headaches, seizures, and changes in mental function, mood, strength, speech and more. Primary brain tumors (those that begin in the brain) represent less than 2% of estimated new cancer cases in 2016. At MD Anderson’s Anne C. Brooks Brain and Spine Center, we have an entire multidisciplinary team dedicated specifically to treating these rare tumors.
Below, I’ve answered eight questions about coping with a brain tumor that I often hear from my brain tumor patients. Keep in mind that you should always talk to your care team to receive specific medical advice for your unique tumor.
What side effects can I expect during chemotherapy?
Side effects depend on the type of chemotherapy drug used. One of the most common drugs used for brain tumors is temozolomide, also known as Temodar. This oral chemotherapy is most commonly associated with nausea, constipation and fatigue. Temozolomide also may deplete important blood cells. This is why your doctor will check your blood regularly during treatment.
What diet should brain tumor patients follow during treatment?
It´s important to avoid extreme diets that may deprive you of important nutrients. The internet is full of many unproven anti-cancer diets. Some of these diets, as well as dietary supplements, are potentially harmful, particularly for a person undergoing treatment for cancer. I recommend following the New American Plate guidelines developed by the American Institute for Cancer Research. This means 2/3 of your plate should be filled with vegetables, fruits, whole grains or beans and the other 1/3 or less should be filled with fish or lean animal protein.
What are the symptoms of a seizure?
Many brain tumor patients learn about their diagnosis after experiencing a seizure. You may continue to have seizures after your diagnosis, and these can typically be treated with medication. Symptoms of a generalized or grand mal seizure may include loss of consciousness and shaking or jerking in both arms and legs. Symptoms of a partial seizure can range from episodes of shaking or jerking in one limb, to confusion, difficulty with speech or staring spells.
What should I do if my loved one has a seizure?
Clear the area of potentially harmful objects and stay with your loved one throughout the seizure. Most seizures don’t last long. Call 911 if the seizure is generalized and lasts more than 5 minutes.
When a patient loses consciousness, it’s important to help her gently to the floor, on her side. Place something soft beneath her head to protect her. Do not stick anything in her mouth. Afterwards, take notes about the seizure and notify your loved one’s care team.
What are some of the earliest symptoms of brain metastasis?
Brain metastases occur when cancer spreads from somewhere else in the body, such as the lungs or breasts, to the brain. Metastatic brain tumors are more common than primary brain tumors. Symptoms of both metastatic and primary brain tumors will depend on the location of the tumor in the brain and may include headaches, confusion, weakness, speech difficulties or seizures.
My loved one has a temporal lobe brain tumor. What symptoms can we expect if the tumor grows?
The temporal lobe controls language comprehension and memory, among other functions. Some of the more common symptoms associated with tumors in this region are short-term memory dysfunction and difficulty understanding or expressing language, which is known as aphasia. Patients also may experience seizures or headaches.
My loved one was recently diagnosed with glioblastoma and is now hesitant to visit with friends due to worries about difficulty with word-finding and memory loss. My loved one is very frustrated, anxious and depressed. Is there anything we can do to help?
Word-finding difficulty, cognitive impairment and changes in mood are common symptoms in patients with glioblastoma. Speech-language therapy can be helpful in managing impaired communication skills and regaining confidence. Your doctor may prescribe medication to help reduce anxiety and depression. Neuropsychological evaluation and cognitive rehabilitation strategies may be helpful in assessing and compensating for cognitive dysfunction. Your care team can provide a referral for these services.
What resources are available at MD Anderson for coping with a brain tumor?
Talk to your doctor and care team; we can connect you with the appropriate resources. We have an education series and support group for brain tumor patients and caregivers called MD Anderson BEST that meets during odd-numbered months. We also have social worker counselors in the clinic and a supportive care team that helps manage symptoms. Learn more about patient support resources available at MD Anderson.