Brain tumor signs and symptoms

Published June 16, 2020


Brain tumors are fairly uncommon and occur in about 1 in 10,000 people, but it is important to recognize when common symptoms, like headaches, should be investigated. Oncologist Nicole Shonka, MD and neurosurgeon MIchele Aizenberg, MD discuss signs, symptoms, tumor types and treatment options.

Question: What are the signs and symptoms of a brain tumor?

Answer: The signs and symptoms are going to vary greatly depending on where the tumor is actually located in the brain. Some of the common things you can see regardless of where it’s located are things like nausea and vomiting or blurred vision. Those things can be just based on increasing intracranial pressure. The other things can all depend on specifically where it’s located and what function that part of the brain is in charge of. So an example would be having problems finding your words or having numbness or weakness of maybe one arm, or one leg, or one side of your face.


Question: What are some common issues that have similar symptoms to brain tumors?

Answer: The risk of having a brain cancer is actually very, very small – it’s only maybe 1 in every 10,000 or more people – so I don’t want to give the wrong impression. But headaches can be common just in general. The general, run-of-the-mill headache is pretty common. However, if they don’t go away and they’re really persistent, they wake you up at night from sleep, they cause nausea – that might be a sign that that headache could be more like a brain cancer. The other thing that a lot of the symptoms from brain tumors mimic are strokes, in that they can cause weakness or numbness and tingling just in one part of the body or on the face.


Question: When should I see a medical provider?

Answer: If your headaches are really persistent, really bad, wake you up in the middle of the night from sleep, cause nausea or vomiting, that would be something to go and see your primary care physician about to investigate further. The things that would happen suddenly – like if you suddenly lost the ability to speak, have slurred speech, anything where there’s numbness or tingling just in one part of your body or one side of your body – that would be a reason to go immediately to the emergency room.


Question: Who is most at risk of brain tumors? 

Answer: Most brain tumors occur sporadically but there is an increased risk in people who have genetic predispositions such as an inherited syndrome or a strong family history. It is important to note that there are two main categories of brain tumors: primary brain tumors that start growing in the brain and metastatic tumors that start growing outside of the brain and then spread to the brain such as in metastatic lung cancer. Today we are talking about primary brain tumors. 

Question: What causes brain tumors? 

Answer: People can have changes in certain genes that they are born with or that they acquire over time which makes them more likely to develop a brain tumor. The only definitive exposure risk for developing a brain tumor is ionizing radiation. This is not the kind from standard clinical x-rays or CT scans. Many studies have been done to try to find a cause for the development of brain tumors but they have not been definitive except for radiation exposure and genetic predisposition. 


Question: What treatment is available for brain tumors?

Answer: The type and grade of the tumor are what ultimately determine the recommended treatment for a brain tumor. Generally, treatment may involve surgery to get a diagnosis or remove it, radiation to prevent it from coming back or to control its growth, or chemotherapy to do the same. Treatment may involve only surgery or may include a combination of surgery and radiation or chemotherapy, or include all three.