A brain tumor (a mass of abnormal cells in the brain) is a complex condition that is often misunderstood. Patients who develop brain tumors can have very different experiences, depending on the type of tumor, size and rate of growth. Because brain tumors can be extremely complex and may affect multiple systems in the body, they require comprehensive, multidisciplinary care.

Brain tumors can be malignant (cancerous) or benign (non-cancerous). Some tumors are defined as low grade (slow growing), while others are high grade (fast growing). Tumors that originate in the brain are known as primary tumors. When a tumor spreads (metastasizes) from another area of the body to the brain, the brain tumor is defined as secondary.

The complicated nature of brain tumors leads to many misconceptions. Memorial Hermann Mischer Neurosciences want to set the record straight on brain tumor myths.

MYTH #1: All brain tumor patients have the same symptoms.

Each person who is diagnosed with a brain tumor will have a different set of symptoms. These symptoms may include weakness, headaches, or changes in sensation, hearing or vision.

Some patients develop symptoms gradually or may experience symptoms that are less-typical signs of a brain tumor. With a gradual onset of symptoms, it may take longer to receive a diagnosis. Other patients may experience a sudden onset of symptoms. In these cases, symptoms such as seizures, stroke, intracranial hemorrhage, or loss of consciousness will lead to a more immediate diagnosis.

MYTH #2: Frequent headaches and blurred vision are common signs of brain cancer.

More often, headaches with vision changes indicate migraines, cluster headaches, tension headaches or other common types of pain and discomfort. These conditions should not be alarming. However, persistent headaches or blurred vision that do not get better with usual medications, or that are accompanied by persistent nausea or vomiting, should prompt a more thorough evaluation by a physician. Depending on the specific symptoms, the physician may suggest a CT (computed tomography) or MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) scan.

MYTH #3: Artificial sweeteners cause brain tumors.

Artificial sweeteners have not been shown to cause brain tumors. Some foods, food processing and food additives have been shown to contribute to certain forms of cancer. However, studies have found no evidence of their effect on brain tumors.

Researchers take great interest in learning how diet can affect our epigenetics and metabolism and identify links to a variety of diseases. A healthy diet that is low in processed food and refined sugars and rich in fiber, protein and healthy fats is beneficial. The gut microbiome is an important research topic at McGovern Medical School at The University of Texas Health science Center at Houston (UTHealth), led by members of the UTHealth Neurosciences group at Memorial Hermann.

MYTH #4: Cell phones and microwaves cause brain tumors.

Studies published by the Brain Tumor Epidemiology Consortium (BTEC) have looked at large population data sets, over decades, searching for risks associated with brain tumors. Some of the largest studies of the effects of radio-frequency radiation on the brain have found no significant cause for concern.

This myth is based on the misconception that cell phones and other devices emit small amounts of electromagnetic radiation that could lead to DNA damage in brain cells, causing them to mutate into malignant tumor cells. The evidence has not shown this to be accurate. Radiation that would cause this degree of damage would actually burn the skin first, while simultaneously forming a tumor. Additionally, the bone of the skull is composed of calcium, which is another barrier of protection from radio-frequency radiation.

MYTH #5: Dental X-rays cause brain tumors.

Decades ago, exposure to dental X-rays was associated with an increased risk of developing brain tumors. This outdated technology utilized higher doses of radiation than what is permitted under today’s regulations.

Today, dental X-ray technology uses lower radiation doses, with newer machines that use less power and are able to focus more narrowly.

MYTH #6: Genetics determine who will develop a brain tumor.

The vast majority of brain tumors occur by random chance and are very rare in the general population.

However, there are some rare genetic conditions that predispose individuals to develop certain types of brain tumors. Conditions including neurofibromatosis type 1 and type 2, tuberous sclerosis, Turcotssyndrome, retinoblastoma and Li-Fraumeni syndrome can predispose individuals to develop gliomas and other tumors throughout the body. Since mapping the human genome, and combining that information with new data in the age of personalized medicine, we are discovering new genetic links tied to newly discovered genes and small nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs).

MYTH #7: Brain tumors are a rare form of cancer.

In the U.S., the incidence rate per 100,000 people of developing either a primary malignant (cancerous) or benign (non-cancerous) tumor each year was 14.8 percent. The American Cancer Society (cancer.org) estimates approximately 24,530 individuals (13,840 males and 10,690 females) will be diagnosed with primary malignant brain tumors in the U.S. in 2021.

MYTH #8: All brain tumors are deadly.

Not all brain tumors are deadly. However, both malignant and benign brain tumors can lead to death and therefore need treatment.

In other parts of the body, a benign tumor is usually associated with a good prognosis. However, because of the unique nature of the brain, benign tumors can pose a danger by placing pressure on the brain, compressing cranial nerves or causing swelling of the brain stem. In these situations, the tumors must be treated to prevent continued neurologic complications that may lead to death.

Malignant tumors that begin in the brain or spread to the brain also present unique challenges. Unlike tumors located in other areas of the body, it is not possible to remove all traces of a brain tumor with surgery. These tumors may spread to the surrounding brain tissue on a microscopic level. Even after a careful surgical resection, there will be a need for further treatment and/or surveillance.

MYTH #9: Brain tumors do not return after treatment.

Both benign and malignant brain tumors can recur. Following up with a specialist is important to determine if and when the tumor has returned. Additionally, some treatment options have long-term side effects that need to be monitored.

Once treatment is complete, your doctors will transition you to a state of surveillance, where imaging tests and lab work will be checked periodically. For some brain tumors, after enough time has passed, there is a possibility that your physicians may determine you no longer need further surveillance scans. However, patients should always monitor their symptoms and return to their physician if they notice any new symptoms.

MYTH #10: Life goes back to “normal” once a patient’s treatment plan is complete.

Depending on the type of brain tumor and the course of treatment, patients may experience long-term effects. When treatment ends, many patients feel a sense of relief but also uncertainty about their path forward. Often, patients will need to adapt to a “new normal” way of living.

Many people who have experienced a brain tumor and treatment choose to become patient advocates. These individuals can help provide advice and support to members of their community who are starting the journey they may have just completed.

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