No one knows what causes brain tumors; there are only a few known risk factors that have been established by research. Children who receive radiation to the head have a higher risk of developing a brain tumor as adults, as do people who have certain rare genetic conditions such as neurofibromatosis or Li-Fraumeni syndrome. But those cases represent a fraction of the approximately 35,000 new primary brain tumors diagnosed each year. Age is also a risk factor -- people over the age of 65 are diagnosed with brain cancer at a rate four times higher than younger people.
A primary brain tumor is one that originates in the brain, and not all primary brain tumors are cancerous; benign tumors are not aggressive and normally do not spread to surrounding tissues, although they can be serious and even life threatening.
The National Cancer Institute estimates there will be about 23,000 new cases of brain cancer diagnosed in 2012.
What Is a Tumor?
A tumor is a mass of tissue that's formed by an accumulation of abnormal cells. Normally, the cells in your body age, die, and are replaced by new cells. With cancer and other tumors, something disrupts this cycle. Tumor cells grow, even though the body does not need them, and like normal old cells, they don't die. As this process goes on, the tumor continues to grow as more and more cells are added to the mass.
Primary brain tumors emerge from the various cells that make up the brain and central nervous system and are named for the kind of cell in which they first form. The most common types of adult brain tumors are gliomas and astrocytic tumors. These tumors form from astrocytes and other types of glial cells, which are cells that help keep nerves healthy.
The second most common type of adult brain tumors are meningeal tumors. These form in the meninges, the thin layer of tissue that covers the brain and spinal cord.
What's the Difference Between Benign and Malignant Brain Tumors?
Benign brain tumors are noncancerous. Malignant primary brain tumors are cancers that originate in the brain, typically grow faster than benign tumors, and aggressively invade surrounding tissue. Although brain cancer rarely spreads to other organs, it will spread to other parts of the brain and central nervous system.
Benign brain tumors usually have clearly defined borders and usually are not deeply rooted in brain tissue. This makes them easier to surgically remove, assuming they are in an area of the brain that can be safely operated on. But even after they've been removed, they can still come back, although benign tumors are less likely to recur than malignant ones.
Although benign tumors in other parts of the body can cause problems, they are not generally considered to be a major health problem or to be life-threatening. But even a benign brain tumor can be a serious health problem. Brain tumors damage the cells around them by causing inflammation and putting increased pressure on the tissue under and around it as well as inside the skull.