BY KRISTEN DOLD
About 60 percent of brain tumor patients have at least one seizure due to the growth interfering with the normal electrical activity in the brain. For many, it's the first sign something is amiss. That was the case for Meredith Jones*, a 31-year-old marketing manager who experienced one while driving; an MRI showed she had a glioma. She's currently undergoing radiation.
When to worry: Any seizure warrants a trip to your M.D., whether it's full-body convulsions or subtle twitching in just one area.
Our cover star Maria Menounos. Actress Kate Walsh. Brittany Maynard, the woman at the center of the right-to-die debate who moved to Oregon to take her own life in 2014. When young, healthy women are stricken with brain tumors, it makes the news.
But primary brain tumors—those that start and stay in the brain—like the ones experienced by these women, aren't common, nor are they on the rise. What are? Secondary tumors, cancerous growths that spread to the brain from other areas, such as the breasts or lungs. The majority of brain tumors are this type, and they've become slightly more widespread over the past few decades as advances in chemotherapy have extended lives, giving cancers more opportunities to recur and migrate to the brain.
Of course, brain tumors of any type are scary, even noncancerous ones (they must be treated because they can press on areas of the brain responsible for vital functions). Tumors can't be prevented, and since their symptoms are vague and can mimic other illnesses, they often seem to come out of nowhere. That's why your best defense is to arm yourself with information, so you can notice symptoms and seek treatment before tumors grow and spread.
KNOW THE SIGNS
Whether they start in the brain or elsewhere, brain tumors are stealthy, because symptoms come in various forms and many play a part in everyday ailments like stress. Making tumors even harder to diagnose: The symptoms can vary from person to person—in intensity as well as location, depending on where the growth is—but these are the most common.
Tumors that affect the frontal lobe (the thinking part of the brain) can cause lapses in memory, especially the short-term kind, as well as speech problems like the inability to recall certain words. Growths in the cerebellum can provoke loss of balance and difficulty with motor skills (e.g., writing).
When to worry: If you repeatedly can't remember the names of common objects or frequently need to ask someone to repeat a question they just put forward, see your M.D. for a neurological exam. Ditto if you find you regularly lose your footing, or drop or bump into things—clumsiness can also be a symptom.
A tumor that pushes on or moves delicate tissue in the cerebrum or brain stem can lead to loss of strength or even paralysis.
When to worry: If you have weakness or numbness in your arms, legs, or face that isn't attributed to a poor sleeping or sitting position and doesn't go away after a few minutes, head to the ER immediately.
Around 50 percent of people with brain tumors get them when the mass puts pressure on pain-sensitive blood vessels and nerves within the brain.
When to worry: The odds a tumor is causing your headache are less than 1 percent. But if you have head pain that recurs or worsens over a few weeks, and it doesn't get better with OTC meds, see your doctor—especially if it happens when you first wake up. Brain tumor-linked headaches are often worse when you rise because lying down for long periods causes the growth to put increased pressure on the brain. Also see your doctor if the pain seems to be triggered by exertion, even minor kinds. "I'd have throbbing headaches that lasted a couple of seconds when I coughed or during a bowel movement," says 40-year-old Amy Voros, who was diagnosed with a benign glioma last August and treated with surgery.