Should You Be Worried About Benign Brain Tumors?
Nearly 700K people in the U.S. have a primary brain tumor, which are tumors that grow from the tissues of the brain or in its surrounding tissues. Of these diagnoses, 70 percent are benign—but benign doesn’t always mean harmless.
To learn more about benign brain tumors and their risks, we spoke with G. Michael Lemole, Jr., MD, director of the Vickie and Jack Farber Institute for Neuroscience at Jefferson Health - Abington.
Benign Isn’t Synonymous With “Harmless”
While there are many different kinds of benign brain tumors, it’s important to know that benign doesn’t mean that the tumor can’t hurt you. When untreated, benign tumors can begin to put pressure on surrounding tissues and structures in the brain, causing cognitive, behavioral and perceptual impairments.
“Benign brain tumors are growths that come from the support structures of the brain like the meninges, brain lining, pituitary glands and cranial nerves. What’s most characteristic about benign brain tumors is that they grow slowly, so, if we catch them early, we have the opportunity to not only take them out completely, but also offer a cure,” says Dr. Lemole.
We Don’t Know Why Benign Tumors Grow
Although the exact cause of benign tumors is still unknown, experts know that genetic conditions and environmental factors can play a large role in your risk profile. “For example, people can have a predisposition toward meningioma—the most common type of benign brain tumor—from radiation exposure at a young age, or the brain chemistry itself can create an environment for these tumors to grow due to genetic traits,” says Dr. Lemole. “That is why taking a look at your genetic factors and thinking about your history of potential radiation exposure can help to identify next steps in terms of diagnostic tests and imaging.”
Benign brain tumors can be detected incidentally—through unrelated routine health screenings—or symptomatically. If you’re experiencing gradual hearing loss, weakness in your face, changes in your olfactory sensations or persistent headaches, it’s time to see your doctor.
Benign Brain Tumors Differ From Cancerous Brain Tumors
Compared to malignant tumors, benign tumors grow at a much slower pace and are unlikely to metastasize through the body’s bloodstream. And, unlike malignant primary brain tumors, when properly assessed and treated early-on, benign tumors can often be cured.
“When benign tumors are discovered, they are typically just two to three centimeters in diameter and have a growth rate of one to two millimeters a year, compared to malignant tumors which grow rapidly and quickly disturb surrounding tissues and structures,” says Dr. Lemole. “While the time course between benign and malignant tumors is drastically different, both require immediate attention, persistent monitoring and potential surgical intervention once discovered.”
You Can Treat Benign Brain Tumors Effectively
There are four main treatment approaches for benign brain tumors: close monitoring, surgery, radiation and chemotherapy. Treatment may look different for each person and will be determined by a number of factors, including where the tumor is located, if it is symptomatic and if there are risks associated with surgery.
“Sometimes, doing nothing is the best option. It doesn’t mean you’re giving up. It means that perhaps your tumor requires close monitoring because it isn’t hurting any surrounding structures, and that is the path for you,” Dr. Lemole says. “If your doctor suggests a more aggressive approach, surgery, radiation and chemotherapy may be options to consider.”
Dr. Lemole believes the best benign brain tumor treatment is one that you make together with your healthcare team.