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Building a life while living with brain cancer

Human brain
Written by Chris Curry

While no cancer diagnosis is easy, some can affect our bodies in more ways than others. For people living with brain cancer, they are living with a tumor that can affect who they are as a person. But, new treatment options being offered in Cancer Centers across the country can offer brain cancer patients the opportunity to live a longer life even with one of the most serious tumor types.

“While the risk of developing brain cancer may be less than 1% for the majority of people, even if you find yourself diagnosed with this disease, treatment options are getting better and better all the time,” said Dr. John W. Henson IV, a neuro-medical oncologist at the Georgia Cancer Center. “For instance, neurosurgeons like those at Augusta University Health can use advanced technologies to destroy tumors. These surgical technique, along with new chemotherapy and immunotherapy medications means that in some patients today’s brain tumor prognosis can span multiple decades.”

Currently, there are around 100 general types of brain tumors. The tumor comes from the number of different cells there are in the brain. Everybody understands there are electrical cells, called neurons, in the brain. Those cells have to communicate with one another in order for our muscles to move, our heart to pump blood, our lungs to breath, etc. Those neurons are connected by wires, called axons, allowing electrical impulses to move between neurons. They all have different cell types that can have a cancer named after them.

“Many of those are very, very rare,” Henson said. “Someone who does this intensively for their entire career over 30 – 40 years may see a handful of the rarer cases. And, each type of brain tumor can have its own set of behaviors, which is why that MRI scan can be so important in determining a treatment path. About 50% of brain tumors start somewhere else in the body, like the lungs, then spread to the brain.”

One of the most common but most aggressive and deadly forms of brain cancer is called glioblastoma. When Henson started his career, the number of people surviving that type of cancer for more than a year was around one percent. Today, about 20% of glioblastoma patients can live two to three years.

“When people ask for a prognosis and how long they are going to live, you have to be very cautious about how you answer,” Henson said. “Because no two brain tumors act the same way, even when two patients have the same type of tumor, you have to tell the patient their tumor has the tendency to do behave well or behave badly during treatment. But, we will only know how their tumor is going to behave once we get a little farther down the treatment road. As you grow older, you may have a higher risk of developing a brain tumor.”

While headaches can be a symptom of a potential brain tumor, there are other warning signs to be aware of that increase the likelihood of a cancer diagnosis. These include seizures, changes in vision, sudden loss of consciousness, any new weakness or strange sensations in the body, or in severe cases, trouble speaking or understanding speech.

“Those are definitely red-flag symptoms,” Henson said. “And, even though just hearing a doctor say the words, ‘brain tumor,’ is frightening, remember that usually are slowly growing,” Henson said. “Just because it’s a brain tumor doesn’t necessarily mean it’s cancer.”

About the author

Chris Curry

Chris Curry is the Communications Coordinator for the Georgia Cancer Center at Augusta University. Contact him to schedule an interview on this topic or with one of our experts at 706-799-8841 or chrcurry@augusta.edu.