As with many diseases, developing brain cancer becomes more likely as you hit higher ages. Before you start googling a list of symptoms, know that brain cancer — despite what can be intense media coverage of its high-profile sufferers — is still a rare diagnosis.
In fact, brain cancer represents only 2 percent of cancer cases overall. And the diagnosis can mean different things: The term “brain tumor” may refer to a cancer that starts in the brain or a metastasis or cancer deposit from a cancer that arose in a different part of the body.
There are also many types of brain tumors. Some cases require only surgery and monitoring; others, like the very aggressive glioblastoma that took the life of Sen. John McCain, are associated with significant disability and shorter survival. Actress Valerie Harper reportedly suffered from leptomeningeal carcinomatosis (LMC), a condition in which, according to a New York Times report, “cancer cells invade the fluid-filled membrane surrounding the brain.”
“It is rare for LMC to be the first manifestation of a cancer,” notes Rebecca Harrison, assistant professor of neuro-oncology at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston. “Usually, someone already has a diagnosis of cancer, and goes on to develop this. We know that certain cancers, such as lung cancer, are more likely to develop this than other cancers.”
Here, Harrison explains, are the broader outlines of what a brain cancer diagnosis means, who is most at risk and what the future may hold for patients and their loved ones.
What does a brain cancer diagnosis refer to?
Brain cancer diagnoses, Harrison says, can typically be classified into one of two very broad categories. Primary tumors are cancers that start in the brain or in the central nervous system. Secondary brain cancers, or brain metastases, are tumors that come from a cancer in another part of the body.
What are the different implications of primary versus secondary tumors?
In broad terms, Harrison explains, most of what doctors call primary brain tumors generally do not spread to other parts of the body.