Brain tumor symptoms typically vary from patient to patient, and from one type of brain cancer to another. Some symptoms, such as headaches and fatigue, are vague and may initially be attributed to less serious conditions. Others, such as loss of balance and fine motor skills, are more specific and may be more easily attributed to a brain tumor.
Some of the most common brain tumor symptoms include:
- Severe, recurring headaches (often manifesting as dull, persistent pressure)
- Seizures (with or without the loss of consciousness and/or bodily function)
- Nausea and vomiting
- Prolonged, unexplained fatigue
- Vision loss or "seeing double" (especially common for tumors that develop in the temporal lobe or occipital lobe)
- Difficulty speaking, hearing or remembering things (especially common for tumors that develop in the frontal or temporal lobes)
- Difficulty swallowing or controlling the facial muscles (especially common for tumors that develop in the brain stem)
- Balance changes (especially common for tumors that develop in the cerebellum)
- Changes in mood or personality, such as aggressiveness, confusion, disorientation and difficulty sleeping
Some of these symptoms occur when a tumor places pressure on the brain or spinal cord; others develop as the result of an advanced tumor interfering with normal brain function. However, most of these warning signs will not develop until later in the cancer’s progression.
What is it like to have a seizure caused by a brain tumor?
Many people find seizures to be one of the most concerning symptoms of a brain tumor, likely because they never experienced one prior to developing this malignancy. Although brain tumors can cause tonic-clonic seizures (the ones characterized by losing consciousness and experiencing convulsions), they’re more likely to cause focal seizures. Also known as partial seizures, focal seizures may cause:
- A strange feeling of being absent or spaced out
- Déjà vu (a feeling of previously having been in the same place or done the same thing)
- Jamais vu (a feeling of never having experienced familiar things before)
- Intense emotions
- Visual disturbances
- Unusual smells or tastes
- A feeling of not being able to speak or understand people
- Repetitive sounds or movements
- A feeling of having an enlarged limb
- A rising feeling within the stomach
- Numbness, tingling or a burning sensation
- Muscle twitching or stiffness
Additional symptoms caused by paraneoplastic syndromes
Other conditions known as paraneoplastic syndromes can cause additional symptoms in someone with a brain tumor. Tumors can release hormones and proteins into the bloodstream that direct bodily organs to function abnormally, eventually leading to permanent organ damage if left untreated. Plus, when the immune system recognizes a tumor as a foreign invader, it releases antibodies that are intended to destroy the tumor but can mistakenly damage healthy cells.
Paraneoplastic syndromes can cause a number of symptoms, which will vary based on which organ is being affected. For example, if a paraneoplastic syndrome is affecting the organs within someone’s endocrine system (such as the hypothalamus or the pituitary gland), the person may experience increased blood pressure, weakness or unexplained weight gain. Or, if the syndrome is affecting someone’s skin, the person may feel itchy and notice redness or noncancerous (benign) growths.
If a brain tumor has caused a paraneoplastic syndrome to develop, there are various ways to treat the resulting symptoms. In addition to treating the brain tumor itself, a physician may:
- Prescribe immunosuppressant medication to control the immune system’s response
- Prescribe corticosteroids to reduce any resulting inflammation
- Administer intravenous immunoglobulin to destroy the antibodies that are attacking healthy tissue
- Perform plasmapheresis, which involves removing plasma from the blood to reduce the number of antibodies
Primary brain tumors vs. metastatic brain tumors
The symptoms discussed above can result from primary brain tumors, which are ones that originally developed within the brain. However, other types of cancer can develop elsewhere in the body and then spread (metastasize) to the brain; these are referred to as metastatic brain tumors. Metastatic brain tumors can produce the following symptoms, many of which are the same as those resulting from primary brain tumors:
- Headaches sometimes accompanied by nausea and vomiting
- Balance and coordination problems
- Cognitive issues such as confusion, memory loss and personality changes
Brain tumor treatment at Moffitt
Although the symptoms listed above can result from something other than a brain tumor, it’s still important to discuss them with an oncologist who is familiar with such malignancies and can confirm or rule out a potential tumor. Moffitt Cancer Center’s Neuro-Oncology Program can evaluate patients to help pinpoint the cause of the symptoms. If our oncologists suspect a malignancy, we can perform advanced diagnostic tests on site, giving our patients the answers they deserve as quickly as possible.
Medically Reviewed by Dr. Arnold Etame, neurosurgeon, Department of Neuro-Oncology
If you’re experiencing any of these brain tumor symptoms and would like to discuss your concerns with one of our experienced oncologists who specialize in brain cancer, call 1-888-663-3488 or complete a new patient registration form online. We understand how much stress new patients must be under, so we make it a point to connect them with a cancer expert within just one day.