When normal cells grow old or become damaged, they die and new cells take their place. Sometimes, however, this process goes awry and new cells form when the body doesn’t need them, or old or damaged cells don’t die as they ought to. In this case, the buildup of extra cells can form a mass of tissue – a tumour.
Brain tumours may be ‘primary’ (ie: they start in the brain) or ‘secondary’ – also known as ‘metastatic’ – which means they started in another part of the body but have moved to the brain.
Tumours can be either benign or malignant, but metastases are always malignant.
When a tumour is benign, this means it does not contain malignant cells. Benign tumours can usually be removed and they don’t usually grow back. But they can cause problems in the brain due to their size or their position, if they put pressure on sensitive areas. Some tumours are small and cause no symptoms. In this case, your neurosurgeon may not operate but may instead adopt a wait-and-see approach. However, if you do eventually need an operation, most benign tumours respond well to surgery and you probably won’t need chemotherapy or radiotherapy afterwards.
Most ‘extrinsic’ brain tumours – those that occur around or underneath the brain, such as meningiomas or pituitary tumours – are benign.
Malignant brain tumours – also sometimes referred to as ‘brain cancer’ -- contain cancer cells and are more serious. They may grow rapidly and invade healthy brain tissue, and cancer cells can also break away from a malignant brain tumour and spread to other parts of the brain or to the spinal cord, though not usually to other parts of the body. Treatment for malignant tumours usually involves a combination of surgery, chemotherapy and radiotherapy.
‘Intrinsic’ tumours – those that arise inside the substance of the brain itself, such as gliomas – may be either benign or malignant, except metastases, which are always malignant.
Some brain tumours are found incidentally, while the patient is undergoing treatment or scans for something else. Some may be found as a result of symptoms, which can be very diverse, from headaches, to loss of vision, a stroke or a fit.
Treatment for brain tumours usually starts with detailed scans such as CT and MRI, possible drug treatment to shrink the tumour, and surgery to reduce the tumour but not cure it. A subset of tumours – those which are malignant or those which can’t be removed completely due to their location – may require chemotherapy and radiotherapy.
The vast majority of benign brain tumours are curable and the patient returns to a normal life. But even with difficult intrinsic brain tumours, such as metastases, unpleasant symptoms can be relieved or removed in most instances.
At The London Clinic, patients can be seen urgently, and treated quickly and effectively for their condition by a team of experts.
Services also offered by the Clinic include genetic testing. All brain tumours that have been removed (‘excised’) are sent for analysis to see if there is any genetic activity, and if so, patients are offered the opportunity to have other members of their family tested for susceptibility to similar cancers. However, it should be stressed that this may only be relevant in a very small group of patients.