Dr. Raymund Yong, an assistant professor of neurosurgery at Mount Sinai, says, “In other parts of the body, tumors can be cut out much more easily, but in the brain, there’s very little margin for error.”
THE SPECIALIST: Dr. Raymund Yong
An assistant professor of neurosurgery at Mount Sinai, Dr. Raymund Yong sees patients with brain problems ranging from trauma to tumors. He has been working in the field for over a decade.
WHO’S AT RISK
According to one study that extrapolated data from the Central Brain Tumor Registry, about 688,000 Americans alive in 2010 were diagnosed with a brain tumor. In almost 140,000 of these cases, the tumor was malignant.
“Malignant brain tumors can either start within the brain — which we call primary brain tumors — or can come to the brain from elsewhere in the body as the result of a metastasis from a different cancer,” says Yong. “Men and women of all ages and races can develop malignant brain tumors, as can children, although they are more likely to develop other, more treatable kinds of tumors.”
The distinction between benign and malignant tumors is somewhat different in the brain than in other parts of the body, where very slow-growing tumors might be considered benign.
“Some benign brain tumors are curable, but even tumors that are growing very slowly within the brain are considered malignant because the brain is a relatively small and contained space full of vital structures,” says Yong. “In other parts of the body, tumors can be cut out much more easily, but in the brain, there’s very little margin for error.”
For the vast majority of primary malignant tumors, there are no known risk factors or family history. “The thinking is that all malignant brain tumors are genetic in origin, even if there’s not a family history or a mutated gene that’s been passed on,” says Yong. “In these cases, a random mutation occurring in any one of the brain’s hundreds of billions of cells could lead to brain cancer.”
For metastatic brain tumors, the risk factors are those associated with the original cancer. “For instance, the cancer that most frequently spreads to the brain is lung cancer,” says Yong. “Since smoking is the main risk factor for lung cancer, it can also increase your risk of going on to develop a malignant brain tumor.”
Although people of any age can develop a malignant brain tumor, they are most common in people in their 50s and 60s. “These tumors can start anywhere in the brain,” says Yong. “The biggest lobes are the frontal and temporal lobes, which are the most often affected simply because of their size.”
SIGNS AND SYMPTOMS
The onset of symptoms for some tumors is gradual, while others can cause the brain to decompensate, or start to lose some function, in just a few days or weeks.