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Overview

A brain tumor is a group of abnormal cells that have grown in or around the brain, which can be non-cancerous (benign) or cancerous (malignant). About 700,000 people in the U.S. are living with a brain tumor and an estimated 30 percent of those cases are malignant. 

Because of the brain’s complexity and its connection to the body’s spine and nervous system, brain tumors—and their treatments—can cause a wide variety of neurological symptoms including: memory loss, seizures and loss of motor control. A patient who is diagnosed with a metastatic, or cancerous tumor will probably undergo aggressive treatment that includes surgery, chemotherapy, radiation, or a combination of those treatments.

What are the different types of brain tumors?

There are many types of brain tumors. Each are classified by severity and location within the brain. Grades distinguish a brain tumor’s prognosis. A grade 1 tumor is the most benign, or slow-growing, whereas 4 is malignant, or aggressive. The most common types of brain tumors are gliomas and meningiomas. 

Gliomas are tumors that arise from a type of cell called a glial cell. Meningiomas are tumors that arise from the meningeal tissue, known as the spongy padding between the brain and skull. 

Yale Medicine doctors treat patients with glioma and meningiomas, as well as patients with cancers affecting the central nervous system, nerve sheath, and pituitary region, a small gland at the base of the brain. 

Yale Medicine is comprised of experts in treating metastases, or tumors that grow in locations other than the original tumor site.

What are the symptoms of brain tumors?

Brain tumors can form in many different sizes, shapes and locations within the brain. Depending on those characteristics, a tumor could impair parts of the brain that control memory, cognition, motor control, or subconscious movements such as breathing and heartbeat. 

Symptoms often appear when the tumor becomes large enough to cause swelling or otherwise harm the brain and surrounding nerve tissue. Contact your doctor if you start experiencing some of these common symptoms, as they could be signs of a brain tumor or a different neurological problem:

    •    Frequent headaches
    •    Nausea and vomiting
    •    Balance and coordination problems
    •    Memory problems
    •    Personality changes
    •    Inability to concentrate
    •    Numbness or tingling
    •    Seizures or involuntary muscle jerking

How are brain tumors diagnosed?

Doctors diagnose brain tumors by performing a computed tomography (CT) scan or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). Yale Medicine physicians perform a full medical exam and take a detailed medical history in order to plan the best course of treatment.

How are brain tumors treated? Does everyone need surgery and chemotherapy?

Not everyone with a brain tumor needs aggressive treatment. Some patients have low-grade tumors (Grade 1 and 2), which could only need monitoring, or which might be cured with surgery alone—with no further drug or radiation treatment needed.

Patients with a Grade 3 or Grade 4 tumor might need radiation or chemotherapy to shrink the tumor before surgery is attempted. Even after surgery, patients will need to be closely monitored, as any tumor cells that remain after surgery will eventually grow back to form a second tumor.

What are some of the neurological complications of brain tumors?

Neurological complications can arise when a brain tumor damages brain or nerve tissue. They can also persist after the tumor has been treated, because of lingering damage to the central nervous system. 

Brain tumor treatments can also cause complications. For example, chemotherapy can cause pain and numbness sensations called neuropathy. Cancer patients may develop seizures as a reaction to some chemotherapy drugs or develop an infection as a result of a weakened immune system; they are also at an increased risk of stroke. 

Brain tumors can also lead to a wide variety of rare complications called paraneoplastic syndromes, which are caused by the immune system’s reaction to the tumor. An overactive immune system can lead to inflammation and neuromuscular diseases such as myasthenia gravis.

What is the outlook for someone with a brain tumor?

A brain tumor patient’s prognosis will depend on the type of tumor and stage of its growth. Physicians measure a patient’s life expectancy based on a metric called a five-year survival rate, or the likelihood of living for another five years after diagnosis. 

The five-year survival rate for adults with brain and other central nervous system cancers is about 33 percent. 

What makes Yale Medicine’s approach to treatment unique?

Yale Medicine employs a truly multidisciplinary approach to treatment, so that patients with a wide variety of symptoms can be treated under one roof. The Brain Tumor Center at Smilow Cancer Hospital includes a supporting staff of oncologists, radiologists, pain specialists, movement disorder experts, and psychiatrists. This team meets weekly to discuss complicated cases and determine the best treatment approach for each patient.

The team works closely with referring physicians, so that patients who have traveled long distances for care at Smilow can continue their treatment plan closer to home. Yale Medicine has cutting edge diagnostic and treatment centers, including a neurological intensive care unit with the use of the latest brain scan, surgical, and radiation technologies. 

Monthly support groups assist patients and families, providing an opportunity to share experiences about treatment, recovery and other information, like emotional state.

Yale Medicine treats many patients with a glioblastoma diagnosis, the most common of the aggressive brain tumors.