Frequently Asked Questions About Brain Tumors

At the Hermelin Brain Tumor Center, we seek to provide care that’s both innovative and personalized, with treatment plans tailored to your unique needs.

Our team of doctors, nurses, neuro-oncology coordinators and clinical trials staff makes sure you have all the information and support you need. They’re always ready to answer any questions you may have. Some questions come up more frequently than others, so we have compiled a list of answers to get you started.

Brain tumor basics

Brain tumor symptoms and diagnosis

Brain tumor treatment

What is a brain tumor?

A brain tumor is a growth of abnormal cells in the tissues of the brain. Brain tumors are either benign (noncancerous) or malignant (cancerous). Both types may press on nerves and push into critical areas for function such as speech, movement and the senses. (Whether a tumor does so depends on its location.) Both types of tumors may also cause swelling by blocking fluid and trigger seizures by causing the brain’s electrical impulses to misfire. Learn more about brain tumor types.

How long does a brain tumor take to grow?

Many brain tumors grow slowly, particularly benign brain tumors. Some benign tumors may be safely monitored by a medical team for months or even years rather than being immediately removed with surgery. Many malignant tumors, though, are more aggressive and fast-growing and likely need prompt treatment.

What are the chances of surviving brain cancer?

That is a very challenging question to answer. By looking at a group of people with a particular brain cancer, researchers can calculate the five-year survival rate – the percentage of people alive after five years. These rates vary depending on the type of malignant brain tumor. But no one can provide an accurate answer for an individual, since there are so many other factors involved. We don’t view the people we help as statistics, and we take a hopeful and upbeat approach. For aggressive cancers, we look to help you survive so you can try new treatments as they become available.

Danielle Gillespie Brain Tumor Patient
Beating Odds Together

When 20-year-old Danielle Gillespie discovered she had Glioblastoma, she and her doctors were surprised. Even more surprising? Just six weeks earlier, 28-year-old Sasha Archer had come to Henry Ford with a glioblastoma too. Now, they celebrate 10 years of survivorship!

Can brain tumors spread?

While such cases are rare, cells from malignant brain tumors can move, or metastasize, to the spine. We offer treatment for such cancers.

What does a brain tumor look like?

Brain tumors have a range of shapes and sizes. They are usually noticeable on brain imaging at the time of diagnosis. Your doctor will show you the imaging results and talk to you about the tumor’s size and location, as well as what that information means for your care.

What does a brain tumor feel like? How do you know if you have a brain tumor?

You may not notice some tumors until they grow larger. Others may cause a range of symptoms earlier on, which doctors evaluate during brain tumor diagnosis.

While you don’t directly “feel” a brain tumor, many brain tumors cause swelling and headaches. (Even benign tumors may cause headaches, depending on their size and location.) Brain tumor headaches may have features that can distinguish them from other headaches:

  • Often severe and intolerable
  • May develop even in people who rarely (or never) get headaches
  • Can come on quickly
  • May come with vomiting
  • Don’t respond to typical over-the-counter remedies
  • Have a greater intensity in the morning, as swelling can increase while sleeping

How often do brain tumor headaches occur?

Some people with a brain tumor never experience headaches, while others have headaches daily. Steroids may help provide relief once a brain tumor diagnosis is confirmed. But even if headaches go away, they may return later. Such reappearances can signal changes within the tumor, an increase in tumor-related brain swelling or a return of the tumor after treatments.

How are brain tumors diagnosed?

During brain tumor diagnosis, specialists use imaging to determine the size and location of the tumor, as well as its type and specific characteristics. They also identify any complications that may need prompt treatment, such as brain swelling or loss of speech or movement.

Our brain tumor diagnosis can involve:

  • Evaluation of symptoms
  • Complete physical, neurological and eye examination
  • Imaging (typically a CT scan followed by an MRI)
  • Microscopic analysis of tumor cells, drawn from a tumor tissue sample taken during biopsy or other surgery
  • Molecular testing for genetic changes and other tumor specifics (learn more about brain tumor typing)

What is the treatment for brain tumors?

Every person we see and every tumor we treat is a little different. Potential options for brain tumor treatment include surgery, laser therapy, chemotherapy and radiation therapy. We also evaluate everyone we see for participation in clinical trials, which may test immunotherapy and other new treatment approaches.

Treatment options depend on:

  • Brain tumor type and severity (grade)
  • Tumor size and location
  • Your age and overall health
  • Your goals and preferences
  • Need to balance treatment with protection of brain function

What side effects does chemotherapy cause when treating brain tumors?

Many people have heard of the side effects chemotherapy can cause when treating other cancers – nausea, vomiting, mouth sores, etc. But a number of the brain cancer chemotherapy drugs we use are a little different and may not cause such severe side effects. Your team will discuss the possibilities with you before you commit to a treatment plan.

When is a brain tumor inoperable?

You may have sought treatment elsewhere and been told a brain tumor was inoperable, typically because of its location. But our experienced surgeons can often help in such cases. They may be able to remove the tumor completely, or at least enough to improve your quality of life and provide further treatment options. Our team completes hundreds of brain tumor surgeries each year and uses sophisticated technology that increases the range of tumors they can treat.

How often do brain tumors come back?

Unfortunately, many malignant brain tumors return (recur), even after treatment initially appears successful. Because of this risk, we provide checkups and imaging tests at regular intervals. While tumors frequently recur near their original locations, they may also show up in a different part of the brain or on the spinal cord.

If a brain tumor does return, we work with you to find additional treatment options and the best way to proceed. Our team can also provide relief for symptoms.

How do clinical trials work for brain tumors?

Clinical trials for brain tumors evaluate ways to improve quality of life and assess new therapies, including immunotherapies that harness the body’s own immune system. Clinical trials also evaluate new combinations of treatments and can provide hope for those with more aggressive tumors or cancer that has returned.

New treatments only proceed to clinical trials if they show promise and an expectation of safety. While we evaluate everyone we see for potential participation in a brain cancer clinical trial, we never want you to feel like a test subject. Our clinical trials team spends the time to answer all your questions, including those covering potential risks and benefits.

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