Symptoms & Risks

What is brain cancer?

Brain cancer is divided into two categories. The first is primary brain cancer in which the cancer starts from a cell within the brain and grows there without usually spreading to other organs. The second is metastatic brain cancer in which the brain tumor has come from cancer that started elsewhere (for example, the lung or a melanoma) and moved through the bloodstream to the brain. There are also benign brain tumors that are often managed similarly to brain cancer but have a much better prognosis.

How common is brain cancer?

There will be roughly 80,000 brain tumors diagnosed each year. Of those, 1/3 are malignant or cancerous. The rest are benign. Most will be in adults with close to 5,000 in children (0-18 years of age).

Who can get brain cancer?

Anyone can get brain cancer. It strikes all age groups and ethnic groups. Though males are more commonly affected, the ratio is very close between genders. It is most common in people in their 60’s, 70’s and 80’s with another peak in childhood.

What are the risk factors?

Environmental exposure is not well linked to primary brain cancers. There has been some association with significant radiation exposure years before, but in situations where the radiation was needed at the time. Chemical and EMF (electromagnetic fields) exposure have not conclusively been linked, but exposure should be limited in children. There are some uncommon familial syndromes such as Li Fraumeni syndrome, Von Hippel-Lindau syndrome, and neurofibromatosis that have been linked with brain cancers. There can be viruses such as HIV (human immunodeficiency virus) and EBV (Epstein-Barr virus) that may be linked with primary CNS (central nervous system) lymphoma. Age is a relative risk factor with older adults and children being at the highest risk.

What are the symptoms?

The most common symptoms are a headache, abrupt worsening of memory and/or change in personality, an abrupt change in vision, focal weakness (one part or one side of the body), difficulty speaking and seizure activity. Any of these symptoms can occur alone or in combination.

How can I prevent brain cancer?

Primary brain cancers cannot generally be prevented. Metastatic brain tumors can be prevented by preventing the cancer at the primary site. Tactics such as stopping smoking or not starting and avoidance of excessive sun exposure can not only reduce the risk of cancer in other places of the body but in the brain as well.