What Are the Actual Warning Signs of a Brain Tumor?

Rest assured: Most headaches are not caused by brain tumors
Ilustration of a tumor in the brain

Over your lifetime, the odds of developing a cancerous brain tumor are less than 1%. Usually, symptoms like a headache or confusion are just your body’s way of telling you to hydrate or sleep more.

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But rarely, these symptoms can signal a bigger problem.

Unfortunately, the warning signs of a brain tumor can be as diverse as the brain’s endless list of responsibilities. “There is no specific sign for a brain tumor,” says neuro-oncologist Manmeet Ahluwalia, MD. “A brain tumor can present with many different signs and symptoms, depending on where it is located.”

Signs to watch out for

With more than 120 types of brain tumors, symptoms run the gamut from none at all to major red flags. Ultimately, how your body sounds the alarm depends on:

  • Where the tumor forms.
  • What part of the body the affected area of the brain controls.
  • How big the tumor is.

But to know when a symptom really spells trouble, you need to know your own body. Changes in your health can be just as telling as the symptom itself.

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If you experience one or several of these signs, Dr. Ahluwalia recommends seeing a medical professional:

  1. Seizures: A tumor can make the brain’s neurons fire wildly, leading to seizures.
  2. Changes in your mental status: Perhaps you’ve had confusion, one too many “senior moments” or more trouble than usual figuring out a restaurant bill. Your mental abilities are personal to you — and so are any changes to them.
  3. Personality or behavioral changes: “Frontal lobe tumors, in particular, can cause happy, bubbly people to develop a flat affect or cause some normally quiet people to become more talkative,” explains Dr. Ahluwalia. “They can also cause a loss of inhibition.”
  4. Clumsiness: Brain stem tumors may lead to a loss of balance or clumsy movements.
  5. Visual problems: A tumor in a brain area that controls eyesight may affect your vision. Blurred, double or even loss of vision can be signs of a brain tumor.
  6. Limb weakness: Losing strength or weakness in an arm or leg may be a brain tumor symptom.
  7. Headaches: “But most headaches are not the result of a brain tumor,” Dr. Ahluwalia assures. “Brain tumor headaches tend to persist for more than a few days, are associated with nausea or vomiting or occur early in the morning.”

Signs of brain metastases

Here’s surprising fact: The most common brain tumors don’t actually start in the brain. Brain metastases, or metastatic brain tumors, spread to the brain from other parts of the body — most often from the lungs, breasts, skin, kidneys or colon.

“A person with a known history of these cancers who develops any of these neurological symptoms should be evaluated,” Dr. Ahluwalia says.

Where to go if you need brain tumor treatment

If you are diagnosed with a brain tumor, Dr. Ahluwalia says you’ll get the best care at a brain tumor center of excellence.

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“These centers specialize in multidisciplinary treatment for brain tumors,” he explains. “You have neurosurgeons who treat patients with brain tumors every day of the week. You also have radiation oncologists and neuro-oncologists or medical oncologists who primarily treat patients with brain tumors.”

These centers usually offer opportunities to participate in clinical trials, too. So if a tumor has limited treatment options, a brain tumor center can give you access to promising new drugs or immunotherapies that may effectively treat it.

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