The symptoms of brain cancer look an awful lot like other everyday ailments, from headaches to depression. Here’s when to consider seeing your doctor for a workup.
Brain cancer: A scary diagnosis
The good news is that brain cancer affects less than 1 per cent of the world’s population; the bad news is that brain tumours are often accompanied by very few symptoms, and these symptoms disguise themselves as everyday ailments such as headaches and exhaustion. Read on for eight silent, but serious, symptoms of a brain tumour, and how you should know whether or not to see a doctor.
1. Persistent headaches
It can be very difficult for even doctors to tell the difference between headaches (or full-on migraines) caused by brain tumors and those resulting from other reasons. “The best indicator is a new daily headache that won’t seem to go away,” says Mike Chen, MD, PhD, associate professor, division of neurosurgery, department of surgery at City of Hope. “These headaches tend to get worse over time and are often present when you wake up in the morning, when intracranial pressure is high from lying in bed for hour-long periods of time.”
This pain can vary greatly regardless of the size or growth rate of the tumour. “A small, fast-growing tumour can cause as severe of a headache as a large, slow-growing tumour,” says Santosh Kesari, MD, PhD, neuro-oncologist and chair of the department of translational neuro-oncology and neurotherapeutics at John Wayne Cancer Institute in Santa Monica, California.
And there’s no specific type of headache that can predict whether or not a person has a brain tumour. The key is to be on the lookout for new, persistent headaches that do not respond to any treatments, such as over-the-counter medicines.
2. A subtle loss of vision
Patients experiencing this particular symptom may not be aware of it at all—let alone associate it with a brain tumour. They may not even notice an alteration in their vision quality until they continually bump into things on one side of the body related to the vision loss or have repeated car accidents on the side of the loss.
“This particular symptom or impaired peripheral vision is known as bitemporal hemianopsia,” says Christopher Carrubba, MD, co-director for Medical Education at Med School Tutors. “We often see this symptom with pituitary tumors that compress the optic chiasm, or part of the visual pathway.”
3. Weakness and lethargy
The motor cortex of the brain initiates and controls muscle movement throughout the body. “The right motor cortex controls the left side of your body and the left motor cortex controls the right side of your body,” says Dr. Chen.
If there are tumours anywhere along this pathway, these signals are completely disrupted and the result is loss of function.” If you have a brain tumour, you may not experience pain in your limbs, but your left or right leg or arm may not respond the way you’re used to—or at all. Weak legs may also mean that you have a vitamin D deficiency.
4. Slurred or stuttering speech
“Language problems such as stuttering, difficulty naming objects or understanding what others are saying are key symptoms of a tumour in the frontal or temporal lobes, areas of the brain associated with motor function of speech and language comprehension,” says Dr. Carrubba.
“There are two speech centres in the brain that are located on the left side—Wernicke’s area, which allows us to understand and comprehend speech, and Broca’s area, which activates the muscles that create sound.” When a tumour is present in the brain, both abilities are often obstructed.
5. Moody feelings and risky behaviour
“Patients suffering from a brain tumour may develop depression, anger or anxiety, even if they don’t commonly exhibit these types of emotions,” says Sumeet Vadera, M.D., neurosurgeon at University of California Irvine. “This is related to tumour irritation or compression of portions of the frontal lobe, which is responsible for many of our personality traits.”
Patients may also experience changes in behaviour, including becoming more angry or agitated, meddling in more risky behaviours, acting overtly sexual or showing loss of inhibition. “A large, slowly growing tumour in the frontal lobe can even alter personality and judgment so far as to be mistaken for criminal behaviour or psychiatric problems,” says Dr. Chen.
6. Loss of hearing or ear ringing
The temporal lobe, located in the bottom middle part of the cortex behind the temples, is responsible for processing your ability to hear sounds, as well as your ability to comprehend and understand language and conversation. “If you’re experiencing hearing loss from one side or a constant ringing sensation, known as tinnitus, you’ll want to make an appointment with your doctor who can determine whether your symptoms are severe enough to see a neurologist,” says Dr. Carrubba.
The brain pretty much controls nearly everything in our body, including our production of hormones. “It does this by means of an extension known as the pituitary gland, a pea-sized structure located at the base of the brain,” says Chen. “Tumours affecting the pituitary gland can secrete high amounts of hormones or prevent the normal gland from working.” This is why many women suffering from a brain tumour are unable to conceive or produce milk after giving birth.
8. Loss of balance
One of the many areas where the brainstem plays a vital role is with motor function. If you start to find walking difficult, especially in the dark, and you tend to lean toward one side, this can be a symptom caused by tumours in the cerebellum, the area of the brain responsible for balance and coordination.