Health Care Quarterly:

Key to identifying brain cancer happens at the cellular level

According to the National Brain Tumor Society, an estimated 700,000 people in the United States are living with a primary brain tumor and more than 86,000 will be diagnosed in 2019. Here are some things you should know about this disease and what signs, symptoms and treatments are available.

Brain cancer is not a common disease on the spectrum of brain disorders. The most common way brain cancer presents itself is if someone begins having seizures. Individuals with brain cancer may also experience headaches. Also, there may be weakness in one side of the body or arm, or changes in personality. Whenever these things happen, they need to be investigated by a medical professional.

The causes of brain cancer are usually unknown but there are certain risk factors to consider. According to the American Society of Clinical Oncology, those factors include age (brain tumors are more common in children and older adults), gender (men are more likely to develop a tumor) and family history. Metastasis is also a concern. That is the development of a secondary malignant growth away from the primary site of cancer, such as the breast or the lung.

The detailed images created by diagnostic imaging are crucial to confirming whether a tumor exists and, through MRIs, are able help determine if a tumor is benign or malignant.

According to the American Brain Tumor Association, that distinction depends on the level of cell abnormality. “If the tumor is made up of normal-looking cells, then it is benign; however, if the cells are abnormal, then the tumor is malignant,” said the association.

In other words, just because an individual has a brain tumor does not mean he has brain cancer.

“Of the nearly 80,000 brain tumors diagnosed in the U.S. each year, approximately 32 percent are considered malignant — or cancerous,” said the National Foundation for Cancer Research.

The treatment for brain cancer includes surgery, radiation and chemotherapy, but it depends on the stage like with any cancer. Comprehensive Cancer Centers said, “Over the last few years, there have been many improvements made to brain cancer treatment. From advancements in imaging and surgery techniques to newer types of radiation therapy and chemotherapy, there are many brain cancer treatment breakthroughs.”

Treatments are getting better and more research is out there. If someone does not have a history of cancer, brain cancer is still an uncommon disease. What is common is metastasis, so an individual who has a history of colon, lung or breast cancer must remain vigilant. Fortunately, advances in dedicated radiation can help minimize risks of metastasis.

In the past, brain surgery was a major undertaking. Now we have minimally invasive techniques that don’t even leave a scar and require just a day or two of hospitalization. In addition, medical researchers are already conducting studies on injecting viral cells inside the cancer and genetic manipulation of the tumor.

Cancer therapy with vaccinations and genetic manipulations are evolving right now. It is very feasible that in the next 20 to 50 years we will have a cure for brain cancer.

Dr. Rajneesh Agrawal is a radiologist with Desert Radiology.