About Brain Cancer

What is brain cancer?

Brain cancer is the unnecessary and abnormal growth of cells in the brain that form masses called brain tumours.
There are two basic kinds of brain tumours – primary brain tumours and metastatic brain tumours. A tumour that starts in the brain is a primary brain tumour. Metastatic brain tumours begin as cancer somewhere else in the body then spread to the brain.
Malignant tumours can grow very quickly and need to be treated as soon as they are detected. These tumours are invasive and can disrupt the way your body functions. These tumours also vary in the way they grow and respond to treatment. Only when a tumour is malignant (cancerous) is it referred to as brain cancer.
Benign tumours are not considered to be cancerous. For benign tumours, standard treatment, like surgery, is often effective. However, because the brain is enclosed in the skull, even benign tumours can be dangerous. The skull can’t expand to make room for a growing tumour, so the tumour may press on, or damage delicate brain tissue, sometimes becoming life-threatening.

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These tumors are slow growing and unlikely to spread. They can often be cured with surgery.

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These tumors are less likely to grow and spread but are more likely to come back after treatment.

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These tumors are more likely to have rapidly dividing cells but no dead cells. They can grow quickly

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Cells in the tumor are actively dividing. In addition, the tumor has both abnormal blood vessel growth meaning these tumors can grow and spread quickly.

The challenges of brain cancer

 Brain cancer survival rates are low and have hardly changed for 30 years.  In comparison, there have been significant increases in survival for other types of cancer such as prostate which has increased from 60% to over 90% and breast cancer which has increased from 72% to over 90%. The 5-year survival rate for brain cancer has barely shifted, with an increase from 21.2% in 1986, to only 22.3%.

There are multiple factors that contribute to the complexity of treating brain cancer:

The blood-brain barrier protects the brain using a network of tiny blood vessels. This barrier allows the brain to absorb nutrients and prevents harmful substances from entering the brain tissue. This barrier works against many useful chemotherapy drugs which unfortunately means they cannot reach the cancer.

Surgical removal is extremely difficult due to the sensitivity of the brain tissue and the risk of brain damage and in some cases is impossible. When cancer is removed from other areas of the body, a portion of normal tissue surrounding the tumour can often be removed to ensure that all cancer cells are taken out. This is often impossible to do with brain tissue since it is such a delicate organ. To make brain cancer even more challenging, tumours often spread throughout the brain and grow thin filaments which resemble roots of a plant. These filaments are extended into normal brain tissue and are especially difficult to remove.

Radiation therapy may only temporarily delay the tumour growth. This treatment also has many undesirable side effects and can cause serious long term health issues such as memory loss, stroke-like symptoms and poor brain function.

The complexities of brain cancer are still being researched and understood. Highly malignant brain tumours have multiple mutations which create different cancer cells within the tumour. With more research we can target the unique vulnerabilities of each cancer cell and prepare the most accurate treatment.

What types of brain cancer are there?

There are many different types of brain cancers. Some of the most common tumours are listed below.

Astrocytoma – the most common central nervous system tumour, arise anywhere in the brain or spinal cord, and develop from small, star-shaped cells called astrocytes.

Glioblastoma multiforme (GBM) – the most common and deadly brain primary cancer in adults. It is highly aggressive and fast-growing, with an average survival rate of only 15 months. Currently, only 5% of people with GBM survive 5-years post diagnosis.

What are the symptoms?

Symptoms vary depending on the type, size or location of the tumour. There are important indicators for the early diagnosis of brain tumours. Symptoms can include headaches, nausea, confusion, blurred vision, seizures and personality changes.

Finding help and support

A diagnosis of brain cancer is devastating.  Navigating those first few days or weeks through the shock, surgery and treatments, is difficult enough, as is trying to absorb the huge volume of information, which is a sudden steep learning curve filled with emotion.  There are many sources of information, and below are just a few websites that we found so helpful and informative following Dee’s diagnosis.

The Survivorship Diary
Brain Tumour Alliance Australia
Cancer Council Australia
Cure Brain Cancer

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