Symptoms and Risks of Brain Cancer
Symptoms of brain cancer
Although it is possible to be diagnosed with a brain or spine tumor without having previous symptoms, this is rare. In such cases, an unrelated medical study – such as an X-ray after a car accident – may reveal the unexpected mass. More often, people seek medical attention for some type of symptom. These can include:
- Progressive headaches
- New seizures
- Personality changes
No symptom definitively indicates an underlying brain tumor. Check with your doctor about any symptoms that are persistent or recurrent and that concern you.
Some tumors grow quickly, causing symptoms that worsen rapidly over several days or weeks. Other tumors result in symptoms that slowly worsen over months or even years. And sometimes people with a bleeding tumor or bad seizure can experience a seemingly sudden event that leads to a brain cancer diagnosis. Our experience is that many times people were feeling “normal” 1-2 weeks before diagnosis. Clearly, these situations can be challenging.
In studies of symptoms that may lead to a brain tumor diagnosis, one investigation focused on the warning signs of people who saw their primary care physicians before diagnosis with a brain tumor. The best predictor was a new seizure in adults. But of all the people presenting with new seizures, only 1 in 40, or 2.5%, ultimately had a brain tumor.
Another poor predictor was having the type of progressive headache that would lead people to visit their primary care physician. Fewer than 1 in 1,000 of these people were later diagnosed with a brain tumor.
Brain cancer risk factors
More than 95% of people who are diagnosed with a brain or spinal cord tumor have no known risk factors. Even the diagnosis of a family member doesn't put you at increased risk for brain cancer.
The only known risk factor for developing brain or spine cancer is exposure to ionizing radiation. This includes radiation from prior treatment of head and neck cancers. Less common examples include exposure to nuclear power plant accidents and nuclear weapons. Even in these situations there is a long latency period, which is the time between exposure to radiation and development of cancer. The time between radiation exposure and the development of brain cancer can be 10 years or longer.
Several rare inherited conditions can cause people to be at a higher risk of developing brain or spine cancer, as well as cancer in other parts of the body. These syndromes include neurofibromatosis types 1 and 2 (NF 1 and 2), Von Hippel Lindau syndrome, Gorlin’s syndrome, tuberous sclerosis and others.
Many people are diagnosed with these syndromes as children and have a clear familial predisposition, but a syndrome can also arise as a new condition with no other family members affected. The literature reports individual families with a number of members affected by the same type of primary brain tumor.