My buddy had fallen off the radar. After years of at least chatting on our birthdays and around the Army-Navy Game (Go NAVY!) and USNA homecoming, I wasn’t able to reach him and had not gotten a call from him the entire football season. As the Chief Information Officer for a major medical center, he had taken a low profile on social media, and so had his spouse. They were sometimes difficult to reach when they went dark.
Luckily, I knew I’d be traveling in his area, so I was not going to let too busy or too secretive get in the way of seeing him. I went to the facility where he worked, which was more secure than most of the bases we’d served on in our Navy careers. After finally getting his assistant on the phone, I was getting the sense there was something more to the runaround. The last time we did actually speak, he told me he had not been feeling too great – headaches that wouldn’t go away and occasionally blurred vision.
I asked her to have someone – anyone – call me to let me know how to get hold of him after explaining how I’d known him so many years. I received a call from his wife about fifteen minutes later. She told me how to get to his room, that she’d cleared me with security in the building where he was, and prepared me for what I would be walking into.
The funniest, sunniest man I knew was in a comma after surgery on a brain tumor. The surgery had gone great. It was the weakness he suffered after which caused him to fall and brought him, then me, to this room.
On this World Brain Tumor Day, and many days of the year, I lift up and hope to honor my dear friend.
WHAT IS A BRAIN TUMOR?
A brain tumor is an abnormal growth of tissue in the brain or central spine that can disrupt proper brain function. Doctors refer to a tumor based on where the tumor cells originated, and whether they are cancerous (malignant) or not (benign).
- Benign:The least aggressive type of brain tumor is often called a benign brain tumor. They originate from cells within or surrounding the brain, do not contain cancer cells, grow slowly, and typically have clear borders that do not spread into other tissue.
- Malignant:Malignant brain tumors contain cancer cells and often do not have clear borders. They are considered to be life threatening because they grow rapidly and invade surrounding brain tissue.
- Primary:Tumors that start in cells of the brain are called primary brain tumors. Primary brain tumors may spread to other parts of the brain or to the spine, but rarely to other organs.
- Metastatic:Metastatic or secondary brain tumors begin in another part of the body and then spread to the brain. These tumors are more common than primary brain tumors and are named by the location in which they begin.
There are over 120 types of brain and central nervous system tumors. Brain and spinal cord tumors are different for everyone. They form in different areas, develop from different cell lines, and may have different treatment options.
Brain tumors that begin in the brain
Primary brain tumors originate in the brain itself or in tissues close to it, such as in the brain-covering membranes (meninges), cranial nerves, pituitary gland or pineal gland.
Primary brain tumors begin when normal cells acquire errors (mutations) in their DNA. These mutations allow cells to grow and divide at increased rates and to continue living when healthy cells would die. The result is a mass of abnormal cells, which forms a tumor.
In adults, primary brain tumors are much less common than are secondary brain tumors, in which cancer begins elsewhere and spreads to the brain.
Many types of primary brain tumors exist. Each gets its name from the type of cells involved. Examples include:
- These tumors begin in the brain or spinal cord and include astrocytomas, ependymomas, glioblastomas, oligoastrocytomas and oligodendrogliomas.
- A meningioma is a tumor that arises from the membranes that surround your brain and spinal cord (meninges). Most meningiomas are noncancerous.
- Acoustic neuromas (schwannomas).These are benign tumors that develop on the nerves that control balance and hearing leading from your inner ear to your brain.
- Pituitary adenomas.These are mostly benign tumors that develop in the pituitary gland at the base of the brain. These tumors can affect the pituitary hormones with effects throughout the body.
- These are the most common cancerous brain tumors in children. A medulloblastoma starts in the lower back part of the brain and tends to spread through the spinal fluid. These tumors are less common in adults, but they do occur.
- Germ cell tumors.Germ cell tumors may develop during childhood where the testicles or ovaries will form. But sometimes germ cell tumors affect other parts of the body, such as the brain.
- These rare, noncancerous tumors start near the brain’s pituitary gland, which secretes hormones that control many body functions. As the craniopharyngioma slowly grows, it can affect the pituitary gland and other structures near the brain.
Tumors that begin elsewhere and spread to the brain
Secondary (metastatic) brain tumors are tumors that result from rogue cells that go awry elsewhere in your body and then spread (metastasizes) to your brain.
Secondary brain tumors most often occur in people who have a history of cancer. But in rare cases, a metastatic brain tumor may be the first sign of cancer that began elsewhere in your body.
In adults, secondary brain tumors are far more common than are primary brain tumors.
Any cancer can spread to the brain, but common types include:
- Breast cancer
- Colon cancer
- Kidney cancer
- Lung cancer
In most people with primary brain tumors, the cause of the tumor is not clear, but doctors have identified some factors that may increase your risk of a brain tumor.
Risk factors include:
- Exposure to radiation.People who have been exposed to a type of radiation called ionizing radiation have an increased risk of brain tumor. Examples of ionizing radiation include radiation therapy used to treat cancer and radiation exposure caused by atomic bombs or nuclear powered vessels. My friend was a submariner, so this was likely his contributing environmental risk.
- Family history of brain tumors.A small portion of brain tumors occur in people with a family history of brain tumors or a family history of genetic syndromes that increase the risk of brain tumors.
12 POTENTIAL Symptoms
There are times a person may have no symptoms when their brain tumor is discovered. Brain tumor symptoms vary according to tumor type and location. These may include:
New onset or change in pattern of headaches
If you’re not the type to usually have headaches and suddenly find you are dealing with them regularly, it could be many things – including early signs of a brain tumor.
Headaches associated with brain tumors don’t respond to over-the-counter remedies the same way other headaches do. However, you shouldn’t panic if you’re having headaches: “Keep in mind that most headaches are unrelated to brain tumors,” according to WebMD.
The Cancer Treatment Centers of America note that depending on the location of the brain tumor, it can affect areas that are normally responsible for clear communication.
That being said, speech itself may become difficult for the affected person, or they may experience “language difficulties”. This typically means the person can’t find the right words to express something or is unable to comprehend what someone is telling them.
While the ability to choose the right words to be heard can be affected by a brain tumor, so can the ability to hear, according to the Brain Tumour Foundation of Canada. While the ear is obviously important for hearing, it’s the brain the ultimately processes sound, notes the source. That means your ear and its inner structures could be fine, but the pathways and receptors in your brain are not.
One type of tumor that can impact hearing is called an acoustic neuroma, which may affect one or both ears. Tests for this generally show hearing loss in high frequencies, as well as poor recognition of words, it adds. Tumors can affect a smaller area where auditory relay systems are, or by “mass effects” such as creating pressure or even causing the brain to move depending on the size of the tumor.
Weakness in One Side
You may experience weakness in 1-side of the body, affecting the arm and leg on that side. On top of that, you may become confused about which side of your body is left or right, which are all linked to a tumor in the frontal or parietal lobe of the brain.
Another symptom of this type of brain tumor is an “altered perception” of touch or pressure, it adds. Sources note this could affect your ability to feel pain or different temperatures.
Tumors sometimes form on the membranes covering the brain and nearby spinal cord. It says the tumor pressing against these 2-essential areas can cause involuntary movements of muscles – these are called convulsions, which are also sometimes referred to as motor seizures, adds the source.
While this can present as full-blown seizures with loss of bodily function, it can also be in the form of single/multiple muscle twitches, jerks or spasms, known as myoclonic seizures.
Vision problems, such as blurred vision, double vision or loss of peripheral vision
Cancer Treatment Centers of America notes that a tumor located near the optical nerve could result in blurred or double vision, and some other types of tumors can actually result in abnormal eye movements.
The American Brain Tumor Association paints a slight less rosy picture when it comes to the relation of brain tumors and vision: the source notes you may develop blind spots, loss of peripheral vision (seeing out of the corner of your eyes), or sudden blindness – which could indicate pressure from the tumor on the brain, it adds. If you’re experiencing sudden blindness, seek medical assistance immediately.
Brain tumors can also trigger seizures, which “might be the first clue that something unusual is happening in the brain,” according to the American Brain Tumor Association. It notes seizures are more common with particular types of brain tumors, such as slow-growing gliomas, meningiomas (affecting the membranes of the brain and spinal cord), and metastatic brain tumors (cancer that starts elsewhere and spreads to the brain).
Characteristics of tumor-related seizures include a sudden onset of the problem, loss of body function, arrested breathing (for 30-seconds or so) that could lead to a “dusky blue” skin color, an overall short episode of 2 or 3-minutes, and weakness or numbness afterwards.
Family members and caregivers could notice a change in your behavior if you’re dealing with a brain tumor. CureToday.com explains that personality changes in a patient can put extra burden on those already dealing with the illness.
As the frontal lobe of the brain is the “command center” for personality, tumors in this area of the brain will have a more severe impact. However, other locations of tumors can cause hormonal imbalances and severe frustration for the patient, especially if their ability to speak has been impacted. “A brain tumor patient that has lost their speech might desperately want to tell a grandchild how much they love them, but not be able to get the words out,” Cure offers.
Along with personality changes that could involve risky behavior, a person’s mood may drop due to the presence of brain cancer. In some cases, this may result in a misdiagnosis of a psychiatric problem, when in fact it’s a physical change in the brain region causing the depression or other unusual mood or behavior, it adds
A host of problems with the brain’s ability to process information might be a result of a brain tumor. Cancer Treatment Centers of America notes brain cancer (tumors) can make it difficult for a patient to remember things, concentrate on a task, or communicate clearly.
A variety of the symptoms – such as being confused and not being able to think clearly – may be subtle or show up gradually. These could be early red flags to prompt your doctor to have a closer look at the root cause.
Trouble with Balance and Coordination
Cancer.net explains there could be some telltale signs of a brain tumor that show up in physical ways, whether from the cancer itself or the treatments. As the brain and spinal cord are part of the central nervous system, brain cancer patients can experience a variety of these unwanted side effects.
Aside from the cognitive decline already mentioned, brain tumor patients may find they have trouble with walking and balance, and they could experience vertigo, which is the sensation of the room spinning. Problems with coordination (e.g. something simple like tying your shoelaces) might also be impacted.
TheBrainTumorCharity.com based in the UK discusses tumor-related fatigue, noting it is “the most common side effect” of brain tumors and brain cancer. Those with non-cancerous brain tumors may also experience fatigue (defined as tiredness that’s not relieved by resting), it adds. You may also feel like your limbs are heavier and it’s generally tougher to move around.
This tumor-related fatigue can disrupt your sleep patterns and vary in intensity day-to-day or even during the same day, it adds. Other sources note fatigue is also a side effect of surgery, radiation, and chemotherapy – so if the tumor itself isn’t causing you to feel endlessly tired, the treatment might be.
Get Help Today
Whatever symptoms you have, make an appointment and discuss them fully with your physician so everyone has the most accurate information. Though working at a renowned cancer center, my good friend waited a little too long to talk to someone. Too busy and too secretive, right?
Diagnosing a brain tumor can be a complicated process and involve a number of specialists, depending on where you live or where you seek medical attention. One of the factors of survival is early detection and treatment. A brain scan, most often an MRI, is the first step. A biopsy may be necessary, so a pathologist can be brought in to help identify the brain tumor type.
Whatever health concerns you have today, making sure you are connected to the right physicians and they have all of your most up to date information is what HealthLynked is all about. It is the first of its kind social ecosystem designed to “Lynk” patients with their healthcare team in new ways to ensure they receive the best possible care and are restored to the best health possible.
Ready to get “Lynked”? Go to HealthLynked.com, right now, and get signed up for free. Your brain will thank you!
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