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Understanding brain tumors


Brain cancer may not be as common as other forms of cancer, but over 200,000 people in the United States are diagnosed with brain tumors each year. 

This week on “Take Care,” Dr. Tracy Batchelor discusses the kinds of brain tumors and the ways in which they are treated. Batchelor is professor of neurology at Harvard Medical School and executive director at the Massachusetts General Hospital brain tumor center. Dr. Batchelor treated the late Sen. Ted Kennedy.

Click 'Read More' to hear our interview with Dr. Batchelor.

Although there are many kinds of brain tumors, they usually fall into two categories: non-malignant and malignant. Many people use the term “benign” when referring to non-malignant tumors, but Batchelor says that the proper term is non-malignant because they can still cause damage, a fact that is obscured by using benign to describe them.

Unfortunately, Batchelor says that “we [doctors] do not know what causes the vast majority of brain tumors.”

The most common form of non-malignant tumors are called meningiomas, which grow on the edge of the brain and push inside as they grow. Meningiomas are easily treated through surgery.

On the other side of the spectrum are glioblastomas, which are the most common type of malignant tumors. Glioblastomas are harder to treat because they grow faster and impinge upon the surrounding tissue.

Symptoms of brain tumors can range from mild headaches to seizures and loss of consciousness. The area of the brain that is affected contributes more to the severity of the symptoms than the size of the tumor. 

Tumors are usually identified through CT scans and MRIs.  Once the type of tumor has been discovered, treatment begins.

“The type of initial intervention (which is usually surgery) is determined by what we think the brain tumor is based on the MRI and the location of the tumor,” Batchelor says.

Treatment involves a team of specialists. Neurosurgeons, neuro-oncologists, and radiation oncologists can all be included at various points in the treatment process. 

The severity of the illness determines which specialists are involved. For example, neurosurgeons should have no problem treating a non-malignant tumor by themselves, while radiation oncologists may be necessary for malignant tumors that require radiation and chemotherapy after surgery.

While treatment of brain tumors is far from perfect, Batchelor says that “there are more clinical trial options today than there have ever been.”