Non-Malignant (Benign) Brain Tumors: Symptoms and Treatment Options
Brain tumors are abnormal cells growing out of control within the brain. While some are malignant (cancerous and fast-growing), most are benign and non-cancerous. Benign brain tumors grow relatively slowly and tend to stay in one place.
While non-malignant brain tumors do not grow aggressively or spread to other body parts, they may still cause life-changing symptoms. Even slow-growing masses in locations responsible for controlling vision, hearing, speech, and movement, for example, can cause corresponding impairments.
What Are Benign or Non-Malignant Brain Tumors?
Tumors in the brain that are determined as benign or non-malignant tend to grow slowly and stay in one place. They don’t typically spread to the surrounding normal brain tissue or the spinal cord. In most cases, they tend to not return if the entire tumor was successfully removed in surgery.
Their growth is slow and controlled, but benign brain tumors without any symptoms must still be observed. Masses growing near or inside the skull can cause pressure on the brain, no matter their size or rate of growth. Without active surveillance and prompt treatment, the resulting intracranial pressure can cause symptoms and even become life-threatening.
Types of Benign Brain Tumors
Non-malignant tumors in the brain affect different brain regions and produce varying symptoms.
Also known as meningeal tumor, meningioma is a common, slow-growing tumor originating from the meninges, the membrane-like structures protecting the brain and spinal cord. Many cases of meningiomas never produce symptoms, but bigger masses may cause headaches, confusion, vision problems, speech problems, seizures, and weakness.
This type of benign brain tumor got its name from where it originates. Schwannomas are benign nerve sheath tumors originating from Schwann cells, which are responsible for producing the myelin sheath covering peripheral nerves.
Schwannomas can occur at any age and are treated depending on where the abnormal growth is located. Acoustic neuroma or vestibular schwannoma is a common type of benign brain tumor involving the vestibular nerve and affects mostly adults.
Pituitary adenomas are tumors growing on the pituitary gland, the body’s “master gland” located at the base of the brain. Most cases are benign and relatively slow-growing, but they can affect normal pituitary function and cause conditions like lack of energy, unexplained tiredness, irritability, and vision problems.
This type of benign brain tumor affects the central nervous system and commonly occurs on the cells lining blood vessels in the brain, spinal cord, and retina.
Hemangioblastoma is commonly found in young adults, but individuals with Von-Hippel-Lindau syndrome are at increased risk of developing this brain tumor.
A common type of brain tumor in children, craniopharyngioma is a non-malignant tumor that grows near the pituitary gland at the base of the brain. It can be challenging to remove with surgery because of its location deep inside critical brain structures.
Gliomas are tumors that start in glial cells, which perform the vital role of surrounding and supporting the nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord. They can be malignant or somewhat benign and are “graded” based on their appearance and growth.
Grades 1 and 2 are somewhat benign gliomas that almost resemble normal cells and grow slowly. Meanwhile, Grades 3 and 4 are the most aggressive.
This rare, slow-growing tumor is most prevalent in patients ages 50 to 60 and is often found at the base of the skull. When chordomas invade nearby bones, they may put pressure on surrounding tissues, causing pain or other neurological problems.
Common Non-Malignant Brain Tumor Symptoms
Signs and symptoms of benign brain tumors depend on the type of brain tumor and its location in the brain.
- Benign brain tumor symptoms vary depending on the type of brain tumor and its location in the brain. Some of its most common manifestations include:
- New, persistent headaches
- Nausea and vomiting
- Changes in vision or hearing
- Speech problems
- Loss of balance or coordination
- Difficulty thinking or concentrating
Benign tumors may produce symptoms similar to those of malignant cases. They may also cause seizures, weakness or paralysis, and behavioral changes. Because of this, the symptoms alone are not enough to determine whether a tumor is cancerous or not.
While an MRI scan can predict a tumor type, a surgical biopsy is often required to determine whether an intracranial tumor is benign or malignant and grade it accordingly.
Treatment for Non-Malignant Brain Tumor
If you are diagnosed with a benign brain tumor, your neurosurgeon will discuss your treatment options. These options depend on factors such as the tumor size, your age and health, and the extent of your symptoms.
Some non-malignant brain tumors may need to be removed surgically. Even a non-cancerous mass growing inside the head can be dangerous, as there is only so much room inside the skull for anything other than the brain. A slow-growing tumor may eventually create significant pressure on the brain that can cause symptoms and become life-threatening.
The goal of operating on benign brain tumors is to safely remove as much of the mass as possible. In cases where the tumor is located deep inside the brain or near sensitive structures, only part of the tumor may be safely removed. The remaining cells are managed through observation, chemotherapy or radiotherapy.
Chemotherapy and Radiotherapy
If none or only a part of the tumor can be safely removed through surgery, chemotherapy and radiotherapy may be used. Often, the remaining benign tumor cells after surgery are monitored and treated via chemotherapy and radiation if further growth is noted on follow-up imaging.
In conventional chemotherapy, medicines given as a tablet, injection, or drip are used to shrink non-cancerous tumors or kill any remaining cells after surgery. Meanwhile, radiotherapy uses controlled doses of high-energy radiation.
However, some cases do not necessarily require surgery, chemotherapy, or radiotherapy. For example, an older patient with a small brain tumor may simply be monitored with yearly MRIs to ensure it is not growing.
Watching Out for Recurrence
Most patients eventually return to normal activities free of symptoms after treatment. However, recovery can take time and require physical, occupational, or speech therapy to regain function. Temporary swelling of the brain may also occur right after surgery and worsen symptoms for a short time, but medications can reduce swelling and pressure around the brain.
While some non-cancerous tumors go away entirely after being treated, some can recur or even become cancerous. This is why it’s crucial that you work with your physician/surgeon and speak to them about any new or worsening symptoms you may experience.
Undergoing follow-up care, including imaging (MRI), blood work, and physical examinations, also helps catch a recurrence early should it arise.
Begin Your Treatment with Confidence by Seeking a Second Opinion
Benign and malignant brain tumors are usually treated with surgery, chemotherapy, radiation, or any combination of these. While advancements in today’s medical technologies continue to improve patient outcomes, each type of therapy will always come with risks and side effects.
Your physician can help you make the best treatment decision by ordering necessary tests, guiding you through their results, and explaining your options. They will also consider your current condition and recovery goals throughout your dialogues.
As this can significantly impact your life moving forward, it also helps to seek a second opinion from an experienced neurosurgeon. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to ensure you’re on the right path, and experts like Dr. Aaron Cohen-Gadol, MD, can offer a second opinion to help you proceed with your treatment with confidence.
Please fill out this form to request a second opinion today. Dr. Cohen-Gadol and his team will be happy to help you gain the courage to overcome this health crisis.