Brain Tumors: Symptoms and Risk Factors

The brain and spinal cord make up the central nervous system. The central nervous system is where all the functions including body movement, speech, and thought processes are produced and are controlled. Tumors can develop in the brain and spinal cord which can affect the body movements, speech and thought processes of a person. 


There are two categories of tumors: primary and secondary. Tumors that originate in the brain are called primary brain tumors. Secondary brain tumors are tumors that originate in another part of the body and spreads to the brain. These are also called metastatic tumors. Brain and spinal cord tumors may be either benign or malignant, aka noncancerous or cancerous. 

Both malignant tumors and benign tumors cause symptoms and require treatment. Benign tumors do not often spread to other parts of the brain, but they do grow and put pressure on local areas of the brain. On the other hand, malignant tumors usually grow very quickly and often do spread to other areas of the brain. 

There are a number of different types of of brain and spinal cord tumors. In fact, there are over 120 types of brain tumors alone. These tumors are formed by various types of cells and different areas within the brain and spinal cord. The signs and symptoms may vary depending on the location in which the tumor originates, the tumor’s size, how quickly it develops and grows, and how old the patient is. Additionally, the prognosis of brain and spinal cord tumors depends on a number of factors such as age, tumor size, tumor type, and the location of the tumor within the central nervous system. 

Brain tumor statistics:

• 2nd leading cause of cancer-related deaths in children (males and females) under age 20, after leukemia 

• 2nd leading cause of cancer-related deaths in males ages 20-39, after leukemia

• 5th leading cause of cancer-related deaths in females ages 20-39.

• Nearly 70,000 new cases of primary brain tumors will be diagnosed this year.

• More than 4,600 children between the ages of 0-19 will be diagnosed with a brain tumor this year.

• Brain and central nervous system tumors are the most common cancers among children ages 0-19.

• There are nearly 700,000 people in the U.S. living with a brain tumor.

• This year, nearly 14,000 people will lose their battle with a brain tumor.

People with brain tumors may experience symptoms either before and/or during treatment. The symptoms vary depending on the type, size, and location of the tumor. They also depend on the type of treatments that are used to manage it. Treatments such as surgery, radiation, chemotherapy, or another type of treatment, all have the potential to create new symptoms throughout the course of treatment.  

Symptoms of brain tumors include:

• Headaches

• Seizures

• Sensory and motor loss

• Deep venous thrombosis (blood clot)

• Hearing loss

• Vision loss

• Fatigue

• Depression

• Behavioral and cognitive (thinking) changes

• Endocrine dysfunction (hormone/gland changes)

There are a number of risk factors for brain tumors that increase the chance of developing them. These risk factors do not directly cause brain tumors, but they can influence the development of them. There are people who have multiple risk factors who never develop a brain tumor. There are also people who do not have any risk factors and do develop a brain tumor. Currently, there is no way to prevent brain tumors. 

Most common risk factors for brain tumors:

• Age. While people can develop brain tumors at any age, they are most common among children and older adults.

• Gender. Men are more likely than women to develop a brain tumor. Although, specific types of brain tumors, such as meningioma, are more common in women.

• Race/ethnicity. In the United States, Caucasians are more likely to develop gliomas but less likely to develop meningioma compared to African-Americans. People from northern Europe are more than twice as likely to develop a brain tumor compared to people in Japan.

• Family history. About five percent of brain tumors may be linked to hereditary genetic factors or conditions, including Li-Fraumeni syndrome, neurofibromatosis, nevoid basal cell carcinoma syndrome, tuberous sclerosis, Turcot syndrome, and von Hippel-Lindau disease. 

• Exposure to infections, viruses, and allergens. Infectionwith the Epstein-Barr virus (aka “mono”) increases the risk of CNS lymphoma. Studies have also found that a virus called cytomegalovirus has been found in brain tumor tissue. 

• Home and work exposures. Exposure to rubber, oil products, solvents, pesticides, or vinyl chloride may increase the risk of developing a brain tumor. 

• Ionizing radiation. Prior treatment to the brain or head with ionizing radiation, including x-rays, may increase the risk of developing a brain tumor.

• Electromagnetic fields. Studies show that electromagnetic fields, such as energy from cell phones, may increase the risk of developing a brain tumor.