By Dr. Columba Quigley & Anthony Jones
Every year, approximately 1400 cases of malignant brain tumours are diagnosed in Australia, with around 100 of these occurring in children.
What is a brain tumour?
The brain is your body's control centre. It has four lobes and each lobe is made up of billions of cells that are working hard all the time, making sure that your brain can do its jobs properly.
Eventually, the cells get worn out and need to be replaced. They do this by splitting, so you then have two new healthy cells instead of the old worn-out one. Normally, how and when cells split is very carefully controlled, so it only happens when it really needs to.
Sometimes, however, cells behave badly and split out of control. This means that there are lots and lots of badly behaved cells, which come together as a lump or tumour.
Primary brain tumours are when cells have started behaving badly within the brain. Secondary brain tumours mean the cells have started misbehaving somewhere else in the body and then travelled to the brain.
Brain tumours can be benign (not cancer) or malignant (cancer). The cells in a benign tumour generally keep to themselves, whereas those in a malignant tumour tend to interfere with healthy cells nearby.
How do you know it is a brain tumour?
As the tumour grows, it causes swelling in the brain. This causes problems called symptoms. The symptoms depend on where the tumour is and how much swelling there is.
The most common symptoms include:
- Feeling drowsy, sick or forgetful
- Blurred vision
- Difficulty speaking
- Weak arms or legs
These are all clues that help the doctors decide whether someone might have a brain tumour.
If the doctors think it might be a brain tumour, they then do tests to make sure. The tests include a CT scan or MRI, both of which take detailed pictures of the brain. If the scans show a tumour, the doctors will next do a biopsy. This involves taking a small part of the tumour and looking at the cells under the microscope. Once the doctors have all this information, they are ready to start treatment.
How are brain tumours treated?
The aim of treatment is to remove the tumour, or to slow down its growth. The treatment also helps symptoms by reducing any brain swelling.
Types of treatment include:
- Steroids - these medicines do not treat the tumour itself, but reduce the swelling so that symptoms improve.
- Surgery - this involves an operation to remove the tumour. Sometimes, it is not possible to take out the entire tumour, or the tumour may be too hard to reach, so other treatments are needed.
- Chemotherapy - this is strong medicine that kills cells that divide & grow really quickly, like tumour cells.
- Radiotherapy - for this, the doctors use very powerful energy beams to zap & kill the badly behaved cells in the tumour.
The doctors will work out the best treatment plan and will explain all about it.
The treatments can themselves make you feel ill, but they are the best way to get rid of the tumour and to stop it coming back. Steroids can increase your appetite and you might put on weight. They can also cause muscle weakness and upset the sugar balance in your blood. If they are causing a lot of problems, the doctors will work with you to get the right dose that better balances the problems with the benefits. Chemotherapy can make you feel sick and tired, and sometimes it makes your hair fall out. All these problems stop once the chemotherapy ends.
Radiotherapy can cause headaches, sickness, tiredness and skin soreness. There are medicines to help with these problems. After surgery, there may be soreness, and you'll need to stay in hospital for a while.
You might also need medicines for pain or for seizures, if they have been a problem.
The doctors and nurses are there to help during and after the treatment. Once the treatment has finished, regular check-ups are needed, sometimes with brain scans.
Nobody knows for sure why some people get brain tumours, but we do know that it is nobody's fault.
It can be scary having a brain tumour. Being afraid is perfectly normal.
Remember, you are not alone and there are lots of people you can talk to and who are there to help you!
About Dr. Columba Quigley
Dr. Quigley is a medical writer and managing editor at Medikidz, an organisation that provides children with informative, accessible and fun comics to help them understand health and illness.
Anthony Jones is a medical student who helped with researching and writing this article.