Brain Cancer: Treatments & Side Effects

Instructor: Ashli Wilson

Ashli has a Master's Degree in Biology and has taught biology at different grade levels including college, elementary, and middle school.

In this lesson, we'll learn about the brain and how glioblastoma, a common form of brain cancer, is treated. You'll explore how these treatments work, as well as some of their side effects.

Brain Cancer: A Real-Life Example

Lately, Pete and his family have noticed that he has difficulty concentrating and speaking; he often finds conversations and situations confusing. Some of his other symptoms include headaches, nausea and sleepiness. Pete goes to see his doctor, who sends the middle-aged man for magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). Based upon the test results, the doctor diagnoses Pete with primary glioblastoma, the most common and potentially fatal type of malignant brain tumor found in adults.

This is a serious diagnosis requiring one or more treatment options. Before we take a look at them, let's discuss the brain and its function.

The Brain and its Function

The human brain weighs about three pounds and is responsible for relaying neurological signals and communicating with the rest of the body. For example, think of the brain as the leader and the rest of the body as its followers. Each muscle contraction, beat of the heart and body movement happens in response to instructions from the brain, as described below.

  • The largest part of the brain can be found in the left and right cerebral hemispheres, collectively known as the cerebrum. Most of the instructions for the rest of the body develop here before they're transferred to the cerebellum. For instance, the cerebral hemispheres are responsible for many functions, including our ability to move muscles, solve problems and understand language.
  • The cerebellum is located beneath the cerebral hemispheres. This is the part of the brain that sends and receives messages from the rest of the nervous system. The cerebellum also controls posture and coordination.
  • The brain stem connects the cerebral hemispheres to the spinal cord and is responsible for the sleep cycle. The spinal cord extends from the brain and down the back. Think of the spinal cord as a messenger relaying signals from the brain to the rest of the body.
  • In the brain, we also find the pineal and pituitary glands. The pituitary gland controls the hormones responsible for growth in different parts of the body. The pineal gland secretes hormones that manage the sleep cycle.

Parts of the brain including the cerebrum, cerebellum, brain stem and spinal cord, as well as the pineal and pituitary glands
Parts of the brain

Brain Cancer: Treatments

According to the American Brain Tumor Association, there are approximately 120 different kinds of brain cancers or tumors. Brain cancer is characterized by the uncontrolled growth of cells, which results in tumors that can damage and spread to healthy parts of the brain and spinal cord. Pete is suffering from glioblastoma, which usually develops in the cerebral hemispheres. Individualized treatment plans for brain cancer are based upon a patient's age and physical condition, as well as the location, size and type of a tumor; let's look at some of Pete's options for treating his glioblastoma.

Surgery: First, Pete's doctors try to remove as much of his brain tumor as possible during surgery. After surgery, they'll use radiation and chemotherapy to get rid of the remaining parts of the tumor.

Radiation treatment: Radiation, or waves of energy, can kill and stop cancer cells from growing and spreading. Radiation treatments can damage healthy blood vessels and reduce blood flow to parts of the brain. For example, if the tumor is located in the cerebral hemispheres, damage to blood vessels can affect concentration, memory and problem-solving abilities. By comparison, radiation used to treat brain tumors in the cerebellum can impact coordination; treatments targeted towards the brain stem may compromise sleep.

Common side effects of radiation include tiredness and fatigue. Less common side effects include changes in brain function or hormone levels in the pineal and pituitary glands, as well as formation of another brain tumor. Pete can expect these side effects when his radiation treatment is over.

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