Tuesday, May 24, 2011

A Gray Kind of Day.

As storms are devastating parts of the mid-west this week, it seems oddly appropriate that we should share information about a kind of cancer that is also devastating to those who are diagnosed with it. And, the awareness ribbon for it is gray just like the skies we're seeing outside the window.

Approximately 40,000 brain tumors are diagnosed each year in the United States, with about 15,000 of those being the most malignant type, known as glioblastoma. Nobody knows what causes brain tumors, even though a fair amount of research has been done in this area. It is generally known that radiation can cause them, but beyond that, other causes are unknown. You may have heard about theories showing a link between brain tumors and cell phones, head injuries, occupational hazards and electromagnetic waves, but none of those have ever been shown to cause brain tumors in studies.

Even though we don't know why brain tumors occur, research has made advances in treatment options. Since the 1980s, MRI has been used as the standard imaging technology in identifying brain tumors. A newer technology called "functional MRI" can even measure changes in blood flow that accompany brain activity. This can help determine how well different regions of the brain are working, and therefore how they are being affected by a tumor. Intraoperative MRI machines can be used to monitor the extent of tumor removal during surgery.

Another advance has been in the use of chemotherapy. Early chemotherapy drugs were not used as standard treatments for brain tumors, because most of them could not cross the "blood-brain barrier". Today, the orally administered drug Temozolomide (Temodar), which first became available in the U.S. in 1999, can prolong the survival of patients with glioma when combined with radiation therapy. High-dose chemotherapy regimens for the treatment of some types of childhood brain tumors can delay the need for radiation therapy, possibly reducing harm to the developing brain.

Although they can also be attributed to other problems, these are the most common symptoms of a brain tumor listed on the American Brain Tumor Association site. REMEMBER: If you are concerned about any symptoms you are experiencing, or anything you read here, we encourage you to consult your doctor. Share your concerns. The listed symptoms can have many different causes; your doctor can listen to your medical history and make suggestions to help find the cause for your symptoms.

HeadachesHeadaches are a common initial symptom. Typical "brain tumor headaches" are often described as worse in the morning, with improvement gradually during the day. They may rouse the person from sleep. Sometimes, upon awakening, the person vomits then feels better. These headaches may worsen with coughing, exercise, or with a change in position such as bending or kneeling. They also do not typically respond to the usual headache remedies.

About one-third of people diagnosed with a brain tumor are not aware they have a tumor until they have a seizure. Seizures are a common symptom of a brain tumor. Seizures are caused by a disruption in the normal flow of electricity in the brain. Those sudden bursts of electricity may cause convulsions, unusual sensations, and loss of consciousness. Focal seizures -- such as muscle twitching or jerking of an arm or leg, abnormal smells or tastes, problems with speech or numbness and tingling -- may also occur.

Mental and/or Personality Changes
These can range from problems with memory (especially short-term memory), speech, communication and/or concentration changes to severe intellectual problems and confusion. Changes in behavior, temperament and personality may also occur, depending where the tumor is located. These changes can be caused by the tumor itself, by increased pressure within the skull caused by the presence of the tumor, or by involvement of the parts of the brain that control personality.

Mass effect
Mass effect is due to increased intracranial pressure, also called IICP. This increased pressure in the brain may be caused by a tumor growing within the tight confines of the skull, or by hydrocephalus - the blockage of the fluid that flows around and through the brain, and/or by edema - swelling of the brain around the tumor due to an accumulation of fluid. Mass effect can cause damage by compressing and displacing the delicate brain tissue. The symptoms caused by IICP include nausea and vomiting, drowsiness, vision problems such as blurred or double vision or loss of peripheral vision, and the headaches and mental changes already mentioned. A swollen optic nerve (papilledema) is a clear sign of IICP. It can be observed by your eye doctor when he examines your eyes. This sign is common in young children, in persons with slow growing tumors, with tumors in the posterior fossa, and in older patients.

Focal, or Localized, Symptoms
In addition to the common, but non-specific symptoms listed above, other more specific symptoms frequently occur. These "focal symptoms" can help identify the location of the tumor. Focal symptoms include: hearing problems such as ringing or buzzing sounds or hearing loss, decreased muscle control, lack of coordination, decreased sensation, weakness or paralysis, difficulty with walking or speech, balance problems, or double vision.

Portions of this post were created from Coping with Cancer articles here and here. Symptom information was found at the ABTA website linked above.

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