“I heard those words, and everything seemed to just stop…”
Over 80,000 adults in the US are diagnosed with a primary tumor of the brain or spinal cord each year, with approximately 25% of these tumors considered to be malignant (cancerous). In addition to primary brain tumors, over 100,000 people each year are diagnosed with a brain or spinal cord metastasis (spread to the nervous system of a cancer that started elsewhere in the body).
Despite these high numbers, brain tumors are overall relatively rare. Because they are rare, and because they are generally not a hereditary condition and have no clear factors that predispose someone to developing a brain tumor, there is no recommended screening for them.
Being diagnosed with a brain tumor can be a fundamentally life changing event. As important as providing clinical expertise, our team is committed to providing compassionate, empathetic care and emotional support as patients and families navigate this difficult time. We believe that taking the time to answer every question is crucial to provide peace of mind, and that getting to know our patients and their families are fundamental to providing the best possible medical care.
Symptoms of a Tumor
“I didn’t really feel much different, just some headaches…”
Symptoms of a brain tumor are nonspecific, meaning they can occur in many medical conditions not just due to a brain tumor. Non-specific symptoms can include feelings like a headache, lightheadedness, or blurry vision, which for most people are not signs of a tumor.
Most often, tumors are found when evaluating for the cause of new neurologic symptoms. Symptoms that could indicate the presence of a brain tumor or other neurologic condition, and therefore should prompt a person to get a neurologic evaluation, include:
- New onset moderate to severe headaches, or a change in character of headache in someone who suffers from a headache disorder
- Difficulty coming up with words or understanding someone who is speaking to them
- Unexplained loss of vision
- Unexplained loss of hearing, onset of dizziness or vertigo
- Facial droop
- New unexplained onset weakness in a limb or half of the body
- New unexplained sensory change involving a limb or half of the body
- New onset of seizure
- New confusion or personality changes
- New onset of memory, concentration, or multitasking
What Happens if I’m Diagnosed With a Tumor
Studies like a computed tomography (CT or CAT) scan of the head or a magnetic resonance (MRI) study of the brain can identify a tumor, but they cannot tell specifically what kind of tumor is present. Most frequently, a tumor diagnosis will be followed by seeing a neurosurgeon for evaluation and surgical treatment. This may include either a biopsy, in which surgery is performed to take part of the tumor, removal of the whole tumor, or further testing to determine the cause of the tumor.
While the thought of surgery is understandably concerning, each year advancements are made to improve safety, and recovery from such procedures. Some surgeries can be done in a minimally invasive fashion allowing for shorter recovery times. New techniques are being used to assist surgeons with safely achieving more complete tumor removal, sometimes resulting in better patient outcomes.
After Surgical Evaluation
Once a tumor has been removed, the tissue is examined by a pathologist and, in some instances, special tests are performed to provide information about the tumor all the way down to the molecular structure. These tests can help to distinguish closely related tumor types from one another, as well as provide information on the nature of a tumor’s behavior. Obtaining an exact diagnosis is important to determine whether further treatment is needed once surgery has been performed, and if so, what type of treatment is needed.
For some tumor types, all that is needed after surgery is to follow with routine brain imaging to make sure the tumor has not come back. For other types of brain tumors further treatment with radiation, chemotherapy, or a combination of treatments may be indicated.
Radiation treatment for a tumor in the nervous system can take several forms. Many types of brain tumors, at least initially, are treated with fractionated radiation, which is a form of radiation in which many beams of radiation coming from different directions are “shaped” to treat a tumor while sparing surrounding normal tissue of the side effects of treatment. In stereotactic radiosurgery, or SRS, a single high dose treatment of radiation is used to treat a tumor. For some treatments, a hybrid combination of approaches may be employed.
The term “chemotherapy” is often used broadly to describe a “systemic” treatment, or a treatment given by mouth or by vein, used to treat cancer. In actuality, there are a number of different types of treatments that can be used systemically to treat brain tumors, ranging from traditional chemotherapies to newer targeted therapies, monoclonal antibodies, and/or immunotherapies. In addition to these therapies, depending on the tumor type and the stage of care, tumor treating fields may also be recommended.
In addition to standard therapies, brain tumor treatment can be undertaken through a clinical trial, in which a new treatment is being explored to see if it is a more effective than standard treatments. The idea of participating in clinical research can be intimidating, especially when already dealing with the stress of a new diagnosis. If you have questions or concerns about clinical trials or are interested in exploring your eligibility to participate in a clinical trial as part of your treatment, be sure to discuss the role of clinical trials in your care with your doctor.
Why Undergo Care at LCMC Health Neuroscience Institute
In addition to the numerous technical advances in cancer care, one of the most important factors in a person’s treatment relies on the expertise of their doctors. It is widely accepted that a comprehensive multidisciplinary approach in which care is delivered by a team of doctors who specialize in specific types of cancer, and who focus on a different aspect of care, plays an important role in making sure that a person is getting the best possible cancer care.
The best care is delivered by a team of Neurosurgeons, Radiation Oncologists, Neuro-Oncologists, Neuropathologists, Neuroradiologists and other supportive specialists with expertise in treating brain tumor patients. The team works together and routinely discusses aspects of a person’s care, often in the setting of a “tumor board,” or multidisciplinary conference where all aspects of a person’s case are discussed to navigate challenges and formulate a treatment plan.
West Jefferson Medical Center, in conjunction with the LSU Brain Tumor program, is at the forefront of brain tumor care in Louisiana. Our team of specialists is one of very few in the state, and the first in the region, to include a fellowship trained Neuro-Oncologist, or doctor specifically trained in the management of brain tumors, at the heart of the team.
We are the only program in the state to have the ability to utilize intraoperative MRI or the use of innovative compounds like “5-ALA” to optimize brain tumor surgery and insure the most complete removal of some tumor types.
We also are one of the few centers who offer patients the broadest opportunity to incorporate international clinical trial options in their care.
“The good physician treats the disease; the great physician treats the patient who has the disease.” – William Osler