Do Brain Tumors Count As Cancer? And Other Things I Didn't Know (Until I Had To)

I was psuedo-hiding in the bathroom stall of a restaurant I worked at during a busy dinner shift when another server called my name. "Someone's on the phone for you at the front. It's an emergency." I threw my cell in my apron and jumped out of the stall -- totally blowing my cover -- and quickly made my way to the hostess stand.

"Dad had a heart attack," my little brother said. It was amazing how the impact of those words hit me so literally, and how by the end of the 30 second conversation I was borderline total freakout. It wasn't actually a heart attack, as I would learn when we got to the local hospital; it was a seizure. They were going to transport him to another hospital that specialized in brain tumors to identify the mass.

I followed my mom as she ghosted each member of the health team with a clipboard in hand and a bag with extra supplies on her shoulder. She listened to everything they said, she asked them to define anything she didn't recognize, and when they had her in waiting rooms she was looking up articles on her phone. Having worked with IHadCancer, I thought for sure I would have a leg up.

But I didn't. I felt awkward and out of place in the hospital. I didn't even know if brain tumors counted as cancer, and I kept hearing that they couldn't tell us what the stage was. How was I supposed to know how serious this was if I didn't know what the stage was? As it turns out, brain tumors act a little bit differently than other cancers. For Brain Tumor Awareness Month, I love the slogan #GrayMatters -- not only because it's very clever, but because it's very true! I think it's worth putting out there some general information about this particularly sneaky type of cancer:

Sparknotes for Brain Tumor Research

When doing your research, keep in mind that treatment options for brain tumors depend upon a number of factors, including:

  • Overall health, age & medical history of the patient
  • Location, type & size of the brain tumor
  • Which symptoms prompted you to discover the tumor, which can indicate the location. Ex) seizures; changes in speech, hearing, vision, personality; problems with balance, walking, memory, concentration; numbness or tingling in arms or legs
  • Likelihood of the brain tumor spreading or recurring
  • Patients’ tolerance of specific therapies, procedures or medications

Think In Grades, Not Stages

All I wanted to know was: "Is it cancer?" I didn't get a straight answer from the doctors, even though we were in an oncology specialist hospital. And the answer is: it depends. Even though both types of tumors are abnormal growths, the difference is in how they grow.

Brain tumors work at two pitches-- slow (low-grade I or II) and fast (high-grade III or IV). Slow-growing brain tumors are benign and often do not show any symptoms because the brain, being so smart and adaptable, adjusts to fit around the tumor until it gets too big and causes the brain to short circuit. Bam: seizure out of the blue. Because benign tumors stay contained and typically have clearly defined borders, they are not considered cancerous. Surgery is a practical and relatively safe form of treatment in their case.

High grades of brain tumors are a whole different ball game. These grades indicate tumors that are malignant (read: cancerous), often not having clear borders and are considered to be life threatening because they grow rapidly and invade surrounding brain tissue. They are also more difficult to remove and often require additional treatments including chemotherapy, radiation therapy or even clinical trials if applicable. Moreover, microscopic brain tumor cells can also remain after brain tumor surgery and have the potential to grow back.

Brain Tumor Fun Facts

  • Over 120 different types of brain tumors have been identified, many with their own subtypes, making universally effective treatments complicated. Both malignant and benign tumors can be life-threatening.
  • The most common primary brain tumor is meningioma, an often benign tumor accounting for 30% of all brain tumor diagnoses.
  • Oftentimes, brain tumors do not demonstrate side effects and are discovered when doctors are looking for something else.
  • Most primary brain tumors have no known cause and are linked to no known risk factors. They affect all races, ages, genders and ethnicities.
  • There were 700,000 people in the U.S. living with a primary brain and central nervous system tumor in 2015.
  • Although the general public remains unaware of the magnitude of this disease (like my family was for 20 years), the cure rate for most brain tumors remains significantly lower compared to many other types of cancer due to underfunded research.

For the most popular types of brain tumors, these statistics were provided by the American Brain Tumor Association:

  • Meningioma represents 36.6% of all primary brain tumors, making them the most common primary brain tumor. There will be an estimated 27,110 new cases in 2017.
  • Gliomas, a broad term which includes all tumors arising from the gluey or supportive tissue of the brain, represent 24.7% of all primary brain tumors and 74.6% of all malignant tumors.
  • Glioblastoma (IE the type my dad had) represent 14.9% of all primary brain tumors, and 55.4% of all gliomas. Glioblastoma has the highest number of cases of all malignant tumors, with an estimated 12,390 new cases predicted in 2017.
  • Astrocytomas, including glioblastoma, represent approximately 75% of all gliomas.
  • Nerve sheath tumors (such as acoustic neuromas) represent about 8.2% of all primary brain tumors.
  • Pituitary tumors represent nearly 16% of all primary brain tumors and rarely become malignant. There will be an estimated 14,230 new cases of pituitary tumors in 2017.
  • Lymphomas represent 2% of all primary brain tumors.
  • Oligodendrogliomas represent nearly 2% of all primary brain tumors.
  • Medulloblastoma/embryonal/primitive tumors represent 1% of all primary brain tumors.
  • The most common site for primary brain and CNS tumors (37%) is within the meninges.

Watching my mother teach herself what the doctors wouldn't say yet was also an experience I would like to take away from anyone who doesn't have to go through it. Right now, my dad has definitely changed since facing his mortality-- everyone in my family has. The emotional and mental long-term effects of his brain tumor are something we are still very much learning, and I wish there were more supportive resources abound for him to take advantage of. But despite its propensity, brain tumors remain one of the lesser-known health conditions of our society.

So, for this Brain Tumor Awareness Month, share this list of facts and common symptoms. Just because there are more people walking around with tumors in their brains than you would think, and dispelling the silence surrounding this incredibly common condition is one of the small contributions we can give to ending it.

American Brain Tumor Association. "Brain Tumor Statistics."
National Brain Tumor Society. "Quick Brain Tumor Facts." 2015.

If you or someone you know has been affected by a brain tumor, what has your experience in treatment been? Share in the comments below