A brain tumor is an abnormal growth of cells within the brain, which can be cancerous or non-cancerous (benign).

It is defined as any intracranial tumor created by abnormal and uncontrolled cell division, normally either in the brain itself (neurons, glial cells (astrocytes, oligodendrocytes, ependymal cells), lymphatic [ifd, blood vessels), in the cranial nerves (myelin-producing Schwann cells), in the brain envelopes (meninges), skull, pituitary and pineal gland, or spread from cancers primarily located in other organs (metastatic tumors).

Any mass or growth of abnormal cells occurring in the brain tissue, skull, supportive tissue around the brain, cranial nerves, or the pituitary or pineal gland can be a brain tumor. Primary tumors are those that develop in the brain; secondary brain tumors originate somewhere else in the body and spread to the brain.

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Primary brain tumors

Primary tumors may be malignant or nonmalignant. Malignant, or high-grade, tumors contain cancer cells. They grow rapidly and invade the healthy tissue around them. Eventually, a malignant tumor will crowd out or destroy the normal cells and interfere with their function. Malignant tumors are life-threatening.

Nonmalignant, or low-grade, tumors may also invade surrounding tissue, or coexist with normal cells. Despite this they can cause severe neurologic impairment, such as seizures, behavioral changes and memory loss, and can interfere with normal, vital brain functions. Some low-grade brain tumors are life-threatening.

The National Cancer Institute (NCI) of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) has dozens of classifications for brain tumors, based on where in the brain they arise and their characteristic growth pattern. Each type of tumor has a recommended, accepted treatment regimen and a different prognosis.

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Primary (true) brain tumors are commonly located in the posterior cranial fossain childrenand in the anterior two-thirds of the cerebral hemispheres in adults, although they can affect any part of the brain.

Symptoms of brain tumors may depend on two factors: tumor size (volume) and tumor location. The time point of symptom onset in the course of disease correlates in many cases with the nature of the tumor (“benign”, i.e. slow-growing/late symptom onset, or malignant, fast growing/early symptom onset) is a frequent reason for seeking medical attention in brain tumor cases.

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How is brain tumors diagnosed ?

Brain tumors are diagnosed using sophisticated computer technology that images the brain in various ways. Computerized tomography (CT) uses a computer and X-rays to make a picture of the brain. Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) or spectroscopy (MRS) create a brain image using magnetic fields and radiowaves. Other imaging techniques that may be used to assist in the diagnosis and treatment of a tumor include digital subtraction angiography (DSA), magnetic resonance angiography (MRA), positron emission tomography (PET), and single photon electron computerized tomography (SPECT).

In addition to their usefulness at the time of initial diagnosis, these technologies may also allow early detection of a brain tumor recurrence, which facilitates earlier treatment.

Most patients with a brain tumor undergo a biopsy, the surgical removal of a tissue sample from the tumor, either alone or as part of the surgical removal of a tumor. A neuropathologist examines the sample under a microscope to confirm the diagnosis, classify the tumor more specifically by the type of cells it contains, determine how abnormal the tumor cells are (histologic grade) and determine how quickly it is growing. Subtle but critical differences in cells that the pathologist detects under the microscope are critical in making the correct diagnosis, which is used in determining further testing and appropriate treatment for each patient.

People with brain tumors have several treatment options. Depending on the tumor type and stage, patients may be treated with surgery, radiation therapy, or chemotherapy. Some patients receive a combination of treatments.

In addition, at any stage of disease, patients may have treatment to control pain and other symptoms of the cancer, to relieve the side effects of therapy, and to ease emotional problems. This kind of treatment is called symptom management, supportive care, or palliative care.

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