“The key to a tumor’s symptoms depends a lot on its location,” says Theodore Schwartz, MD, a neurosurgeon at the Weill Cornell Brain and Spine Center.
For example, if the tumor is near the part of the brain that controls vision in your hands or eyes, your symptoms may include limb weakness and blurred vision, says Schwartz.
Every cell in your brain can develop a tumor, and given that your brain monitors and interprets information from all parts of your body, the list of symptoms for a tumor can include “almost anything imaginable,” says Schwartz.
However, some signs and symptoms are more common than others. Here’s what to look out for.
Regardless of the type of tumor, seizures are often one of the first symptoms of the disease. “Tumor shock causes [brain] neurons to fire uncontrollably and cause abnormal movement,” Schwartz said. Like cancer, seizures come in many forms. You may experience a full-body twitch, or twitching or bending in one limb or part of your face.
If you can’t find your keys, misstep, or lose balance, such clumsiness in your arms, legs, and hands may be a sign of a problem, Schwartz says. Speaking, swallowing, and controlling facial expressions are some of the ways clumsiness can manifest in or around the head, he added.
Schwartz, like clumsiness, loss of sensation in any part of the body or face is something to watch out for. In particular, if a tumor develops in the brain stem, where your brain connects to your spinal cord, you may experience loss of sensation and clumsy movements.
Changes in memory or thinking
While it’s true that cancer can cause significant changes in behavior and personality, Schwartz says the dramatic changes you sometimes hear about or see in movies are rare. People with cancer are more likely to experience memory problems, confusion, and thinking problems, he said.
Schwartz says that nausea and pain in the stomach, especially if these symptoms are persistent and unexplained, can be signs of cancer.
Blurred vision, double vision, and loss of vision are all associated with the tumor, Schwartz said. You may also see floating spots or images, or what is called an “aura.”
Usually no headache
Breathe easily. Despite what most of us think, headaches are not an early symptom of a brain tumor. “They can have very large tumors, but that’s not usually one of the first symptoms that come up,” Schwartz said.
Everything else you need to know
What causes cancer? Schwartz says certain genetic disorders can cause brain tumors. “But the vast majority of tumors develop in people who have no known risk factors or preventive factors,” he explains. Children and adults over 60 are more likely to develop the cancer, but “everyone is at risk at any age,” he added.
Despite what you may have heard, cell phones are not a risk factor. “This is a common misconception, but there is no evidence to encourage us to consider the link between cell phones and cancer,” he said.
Treatments for large or malignant brain tumors include surgery, drugs, radiation, and chemotherapy. The good news: Not all brain tumors are serious. “Many tumors are small, benign, and do not require treatment,” Schwartz explains. “If we find one, we’ll just track growth and change.”