More than 10,000 people are diagnosed with brain tumours in the UK every year.
But while they claim the lives of more than 5,000 people annually, a diagnosis certainly doesn’t mean a death sentence.
Brain tumour patients will often require some form of surgery – dependent on factors such as tumour size, where it is situated in the brain, and how aggressive it is – while others may require radiotherapy and chemotherapy too.
Other patients with benign growths can end up living with them. Take, for example, Sue Perkins who has been living with a tumour for nine years.
To raise awareness of the condition, we spoke to experts about the key symptoms to look out for, plus diagnosis and treatment.
What is it?
A brain tumour is basically a growth found in the brain which can either be cancerous (malignant) or non-cancerous (benign). Depending on the severity of the tumour, and the way in which it grows and spreads, it will be given a grade from one to four – with grade one tumours being the least aggressive, and grade four being the most harmful and cancerous.
According to the NHS, low-grade brain tumours – grades one or two – tend to be slow-growing and unlikely to spread, so they’re usually classed as benign. Malignant tumours, on the other hand, are grade three or four. These tumours start in the brain but then spread to other areas of the body and are more likely to return after treatment.
According to The Brain Tumour Charity, brain tumours are the biggest cancer killer of children and adults under 40.
Dr Helen Webberley, GP for Oxford Online Pharmacy, said: “Because different areas of the brain control different areas of the body, the symptoms of a brain tumour can vary according to which part of the brain it is growing in.
“Some people experience a funny smell, impaired vision, hearing strange noises, memory loss or symptoms in one arm or leg.
“If the tumour causes a build-up of pressure the symptoms can be more general, manifesting as headaches, double vision, vomiting and tinnitus.”
Other symptoms include seizures, drowsiness, mental or behavioural changes (such as changes in personality) and speech problems, according to the NHS.
In babies, an increasing head circumference may signal a brain tumour, while in teenagers, delayed puberty may also be a warning sign.
“Because the nature of the symptoms can be vague, and because they are rare, brain tumours are easily misdiagnosed,” Dr Webberley said.
One in three people need to visit a medical professional more than five times before they receive their diagnosis of a brain tumour, according to The Brain Tumour Charity.
“We hear so many shocking stories from patients whose brain tumours went undiagnosed for months or even years after they first consulted a doctor about their symptoms,” said Sarah Lindsell, chief executive of the charity.
“Many of them made numerous visits to their GP or saw several difference doctors before they were finally referred for a scan. Far too often, they have ended up being diagnosed after a desperate trip to A&E.”
The charity is currently funding a research project to look into what is causing such late diagnoses for patients.
After being diagnosed with a brain tumour, steroids may be prescribed to help reduce swelling in the brain.
Surgery is often the next step undertaken. The aim is to remove as much abnormal tissue as safely as possible.
According to the NHS, it isn’t always possible to remove all of the tumour, so further treatment with radiotherapy or chemotherapy may be needed to treat any abnormal cells left behind.
Dr Webberley warned that treatment for brain tumours can be “challenging” as the damaged part of the brain has to be removed while keeping the healthy parts intact.
“But highly targeted surgery and radiotherapy can be very effective,” she added.
“If you are experiencing headaches that are worse in the morning, unexplained symptoms, or unusual nausea and vomiting, visit your GP to alleviate any concerns.”