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"Can anyone get brain cancer?"


I am told the symptoms can lie dormant for years. Since the brain isn't regularly scanned, what can people do before it's too late? I'm 38 and admittedly a bit paranoid.


Malignancies of the brain are widely variable in their presentation, natural history, and prognosis. Fortunately malignancies of the brain are among the least common cancers to affect adults, as the adult brain is not a tissue with rapid cell turnover and thus has a much lower potential for the development of cancer. Because they are so uncommon, there is no practical and validated method of screening for brain tumors.

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The initial definitive test for characterization of a suspected brain tumor is a radiologic study of the head and brain (such as a CT or MRI scan). These are very expensive tests that carry some risk (either of radiation exposure or misdiagnosis), so when looking for an extremely uncommon disease, the risk is greater than the benefit of screening asymptomatic individuals. For that reason, imaging of the head is reserved for individuals with symptoms suspicious for a brain tumor. Different brain tumors have different patterns of disease, but in general most cause some symptoms before progressing to a point that they are untreatable. The symptoms of a mass lesion in the brain can often be nonspecific early on. People with brain tumors often report headaches that are dull and constant; nausea and vomiting; fainting; changes in mental status, mood, or behavior; and new onset of seizures. These are all nonspecific symptoms that are more frequently explained by other causes, however they should initiate some suspicion for a brain malignancy if several of these occur together. More specific symptoms tend to occur later in the course of the disease, including focal weakness, changes in sensation in certain parts of the body, difficulty with speech or word finding, and visual changes. In virtually every case the best tool for early detection of a brain malignancy is regular care by a general physician that knows you well and who can accurately identify the early signs of this rare problem. If you think you may have any signs or symptoms referable to a brain tumor or other neurologic problem, you should arrange a consultation with a neurologist immediately so you can be fully evaluated and treated. There is no substitute for thorough examination in person by a trained physician.

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