Having a brain tumor (mass of abnormal cells in the brain) is a complex condition that is often misunderstood. Patients who develop brain tumors can have very different experiences, depending on the type, size and rate of growth of the tumor. Because brain tumors can be complicated and may affect multiple systems in the body, they require comprehensive, multidisciplinary care.

The signs and symptoms of brain tumors, as well as their diagnosis and treatment, are complex and varied, which leaves many people feeling confused about the condition. Memorial Hermann Mischer Neurosciences is here to set the record straight on brain tumor myths to help you understand the facts.

MYTH #1: All brain tumor patients have the same symptoms.

Each person who is diagnosed with a brain tumor will have a different set of symptoms. These symptoms may include changes in sensation, weakness, auditory changes, headaches or visual changes.

MYTH #2: Frequent headaches and blurred vision are common signs of brain cancer.

More often, headaches with vision changes indicate migraines, cluster headaches, tension headaches or other common types of pain and discomfort. These conditions should not be alarming; however, if you have persistent headaches or blurred vision that do not get better with usual medications or that occur with persistent nausea or vomiting, you should promptly see your physician for a more thorough evaluation. Depending on the specific symptoms, the physician may suggest a computerized tomography (CT) or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scan to rule out certain conditions.

MYTH #3: Artificial sweeteners cause brain tumors.

Artificial sweeteners have not been shown to cause brain tumors. Some foods, food processing and food additives have been shown to contribute to certain forms of cancer. However, studies have found no evidence of their effect on brain tumors.

MYTH #4: Cell phones and microwaves cause brain tumors.

This myth does not have any scientific or physiological basis. Studies show that the radio-frequency radiation (RFR) from these devices would affect the skin long before reaching the brain. Also, calcium is one of the best absorbers of radiation. The skull is made of calcium and would protect the brain from radio-frequency radiation.

MYTH #5: Dental X-rays cause brain tumors.

Decades ago, exposure to dental X-rays was associated with an increased risk of developing brain tumors. This outdated technology utilized higher doses of radiation than what is permitted under today’s regulations.

Today, dental X-ray technology uses lower radiation doses, with newer machines that use less power and are able to focus more narrowly.

MYTH #6: Genetics determine who will develop a brain tumor.

While some cancers may run in families, there is no evidence of a genetic predisposition to developing a brain tumor. Experts know that gene changes are present in certain types of brain tumors, but they do not know what causes these changes.

Some hereditary syndromes are characterized by tumors developing in various places in the body and may contribute to primary brain-tumor development. These include neurofibromatosis (type 1 and type 2), tuberous sclerosis and Li-Fraumeni syndrome. There is also evidence that people with multiple meningiomas may have a genetic component to their tumors, but experts have not established a genetic link to brain tumors.

Patients with childhood leukemia may have an increased risk of developing a brain tumor, but it is not tied to genetics. These children are exposed to cranial radiation to treat leukemia, and that radiation has been proven to contribute to brain-tumor development. Childhood-leukemia patients should be consistently monitored after completing treatment so any tumors that may develop can be detected at the earliest stage possible.

MYTH #7: Brain tumors are a rare form of cancer.

Brain tumors are the leading cause of solid-cancer death in children under the age of 20, now surpassing the number of deaths in this age group from acute lymphoblastic leukemia. Brain tumors are the third-leading cause of solid-cancer death in young adults, ages 20 to 39.

MYTH #8: All brain tumors are deadly.

Not all brain tumors are deadly. However, both malignant and benign brain tumors can lead to death and therefore need treatment. Some types of brain cancer, including meningioma, anaplastic ependymoma and oligodendroglioma, are highly treatable. However, others are less responsive to treatment.

Brain-tumor treatments include surgery to remove the tumor, radiation therapy to shrink tumor tissue using targeted doses of radiation, and chemotherapy and immunotherapy drugs to kill cancer cells.

Although some brain tumors can drastically alter one’s wellbeing or are deadly, medical advances are improving the effectiveness of treatment. New treatment options make brain tumors more manageable, improve overall quality of life and lengthen life expectancy.

MYTH #9: Brain tumors do not return after treatment.

Both benign and malignant brain tumors can recur. Following up with a specialist is important to determine if/when a tumor has returned. Additionally, some treatment options have long-term side effects that need to be monitored.

Once treatment is complete, physicians may transition certain patients to a state of surveillance, where imaging tests and lab work will be checked periodically. For some brain tumors, after enough time has passed, there is a possibility that physicians may clear a patient and they will no longer need further surveillance scans. However, patients should always monitor their symptoms and return to their physicians if they notice any new symptoms.

MYTH #10: Life goes back to “normal” once a patient’s treatment plan is complete.

Depending on the type of brain tumor and the course of treatment, patients may experience long-term effects. When treatment ends, many patients feel a sense of relief but also uncertainty about the path forward. Often, patients will need to adapt to a “new normal” way of living.

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