Brain Stem Tumor: Treatment, Prognosis & Survival Rate

Instructor: Justine Fritzel

Justine has been a Registered Nurse for 10 years and has a Bachelor's of Science in Nursing degree.

Any type of brain tumor is a serious situation. In this lesson, we will learn about brain stem tumors. We will review treatment options, prognosis, and survival rates.

I'm Seeing Double!

Dan just turned 45 years old and is married with three kids. He works long days in the oil field. Dan has always been a pretty healthy guy, but over the last couple of months he started having frequent headaches. He didn't think much of it, even though he generally never had headaches. But work was stressful and he blamed it on that.

Pretty soon his vision changed too. He was having double vision and he was more unsteady when walking. His wife helped convince him to go see his doctor. After several visits and tests, his doctor told him that he had a brain stem tumor.

Brain Stem Tumors

Your body is made up of cells that divide to make new cells and old cells die. For various reasons, sometimes cells start dividing and growing uncontrollably and this results in a tumor. Tumors can be benign or malignant. Benign is not cancerous and malignant is cancerous. One main difference is that benign tumors do not grow into nearby tissues and malignant tumors can grow into other tissues and spread throughout the body.

When we are talking about the brain, either type of tumor can cause symptoms and issues due to the tight space that the brain is contained in. A tumor increases the pressure in the brain.

The brain stem is at the base of the brain and connects to the spinal cord. It is made up of the midbrain, pons, and medulla oblongata.

The brain stem connects the base of your brain to the spinal cord. It is made up of the midbrain, pons, and medulla oblongata. It allows signals to travel on the nerve fibers between the cerebrum and the rest of the body. These signals control your muscles and sensations. The brain stem is also responsible for life sustaining functions such as breathing and your heart beating. The nerves that connect to your face, eyes, tongue, and mouth, called the cranial nerves start in the brain stem.

Dan had experienced the typical early symptoms of a brain stem tumor— double vision, headaches, and lack of coordination with walking. Additional symptoms include problems with sensation, face and eye movements, hearing, and swallowing. Weakness and stiff muscles are also common. The tumor can cause increased pressure in the brain, seizures, and breathing irregularities.

Dan and his wife were eager to learn about treatment options.

Treatment Options and Prognosis

Surgery can be an option for tumors in the brain. Depending on the type of tumor, surgical intervention may be able to remove the entire tumor or part of it to relieve the pressure on the brain.

Radiation therapy is also a common option for brain tumors and uses high energy x-rays to kill cancer cells or at least keep them from continuing to grow.

Chemotherapy is the use of drugs to kill the cancer cells or stop them from dividing and producing more cancer cells. The drugs can be taken orally, intravenously, or placed inside the body depending on the type of cancer.

The doctor explains to Dan and his wife that because the brain stem is a small area and essential for life, it is often not possible to surgically remove the tumor. Brain stem tumors are rare in adults and are unfortunately not well understood. He further explains that prognosis, or outcome, for this type of tumor is very poor. Studies have shown that the median survival rate is only 5.4 years.

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