Brain Cancer Symptoms: When should I see a doctor?

Jul. 20, 2018

woman looking out windowCompared to some types of cancer, brain cancer is fairly rare. In 2018, the National Cancer Institute estimates there will be nearly 24,000 new cases of brain cancer in the U.S. This makes up about 1.4 percent of all new cancer cases.

Knowing some of the signs and symptoms of brain cancer may help you or your loved one get help sooner, which may help avoid permanent symptoms. Jennifer Serventi, P.A.-C., C.C.R.P., NeuroOncology research associate, works with patients who’ve been diagnosed with a brain tumor. She shares some important symptoms that could point to a brain tumor and that could warrant attention by a medical professional.

Seizure. Having a seizure is perhaps the most obvious sign something is wrong. Often, a seizure prompts a CT scan that can show if a brain tumor is present. However, seizures can also be caused by numerous other conditions, such as epilepsy or stroke.

Headache. While a seizure may be the most alarming signal, not everyone with a brain tumor experiences a symptom that dramatic. An ongoing headache that presents daily or multiple times a week over a period of weeks can point to a problem and merits a visit to the doctor. The classic type of headache those with brain cancer may experience is a sensation of pressure, especially upon waking in the morning. In severe cases, it could be accompanied by vomiting and confusion.

Acting differently. Examples of acting differently could include odd behaviors, personality changes or difficulty doing things that used to come naturally. For example, someone who has always been meek and mild could suddenly become aggressive or someone who used to be very outgoing could become more introverted.

Acting differently could also include odd behaviors, like putting the car keys in the freezer. They are actions that one might attribute to old age or dementia, but actions that are out-of-step shouldn’t just be dismissed. They warrant attention from a medical provider.

Trouble speaking or thinking of words. Language and being able to communicate with others are vital parts of what makes us human. If someone seems to have trouble getting words out or starts using incorrect words in some situations, seek attention.

Mild weakness on one side. While this seems like a less dramatic symptom compared to some of the others above, if it is experienced, it is worth addressing. It could be a sign of a brain tumor or of another problem.

In many cases, patients themselves don’t notice the symptoms, but rather someone around them will notice something seems off.

“One of our busiest days tends to be the day after Thanksgiving, when adult children see their parents perhaps for the first time in a few months and notice something isn’t quite right,” Serventi says. “If you or someone you care about experiences the symptoms above, don’t hesitate to get help.”

Learn more about brain and spinal cord tumors, including Wilmot Cancer Institute’s approach to caring for those living with brain cancer.