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.
When doctors announced that Sen. Edward Kennedy had a kind of brain cancer called malignant glioma, many people hearing the news had probably never heard of the cancer.
For some, however, the diagnosis was painfully familiar. WebMD talked to three survivors of brain cancer similar to that affecting the senator, including two who have survived it for more than 10 years. Their advice to Kennedy: Don't listen to statistics, and don't give up hope.
Here are their stories:
The National Cancer Institute estimates there will be about 23,380 new cases of brain cancer diagnosed in 2014.
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 unlike 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.