Brain Tumor Breakthroughs

Posted on: May 9, 2016

Imagine hearing the words, “You have a brain tumor.” Those words are terrifying, but the situation isn’t necessarily hopeless. People often think a brain tumor is a death sentence, but brain tumor treatment with today’s technology has come a long way, often making it a curable condition.

Brain Tumor Breakthroughs, by Deborah Benzil, MD, FACS, FAANS

Dr. Deborah Benzil Northern Westchester brain tumor surgeonBrain tumors fall into two major categories: cancerous or benign. Benign brain tumors are very treatable. In fact, some only need to be monitored. With our treatment process, we check the tumor every so often, and these patients lead perfectly normal lives.

Naturally, cancerous tumors are more worrisome. These also come in two types: Primary tumors—such as gliomas—which originate in the brain, and secondary tumors, which are made up of cancer cells that have spread from elsewhere in the body, such as the lungs, breast, or colon. Secondary tumors are more common.

Determining your risk for a brain tumor isn’t easy. A family history may play a role in some tumors. Getting older or having cancer elsewhere increases risk, as well. Exposure to some types of radiation can play a part, though you’ll be happy to learn that power lines, cellphones, and microwave ovens have not been linked to brain cancer.

Because the risk factors for brain tumors aren’t clear, symptoms tend to be the first sign of trouble. The signs often include the start of headaches or a change in their frequency or severity. Vision problems may crop up, or a loss of sensation or weakness in a limb, or difficulty with balance. Some people have more dramatic and obvious problems like unexplained nausea or vomiting, personality changes, or seizures. If you have any of these signs, see your primary care physician immediately to determine if brain tumor treatment is your best option.

Such symptoms will prompt tests of your neurological function (strength, coordination, speech, etc.); your results may indicate the need for an MRI or CAT scan of your head. Should the imaging reveal a mass, you will likely be referred to a neurosurgeon. It’s a good idea to see a specialist who is part of a larger medical group. If you end up needing surgery for a cancerous tumor, you don’t want to be on your own finding a medical oncologist for your chemotherapy. You’ll also want to be sure your surgeon has plenty of experience dealing with brain tumors.

There are a lot of new technologies that can make brain surgery much safer and easier on the patient.

Advanced techniques like Gamma Knife, and stereotactic guidance offer minimally invasive solutions. We can have patients back on their feet in a few days, and without any loss of hair. We’re way past the days of shaving patients’ heads and leaving big scars on the scalp. I remember a patient of mine, who was a nurse, returned to work (in a medical setting) 48 hours after treatment for a brain tumor and none of her co-workers even knew she had had surgery!

While neurosurgeons can have a lot of success managing benign and secondary tumors, primary brain tumors still present a substantial challenge. This is the final frontier—we’re still trying to understand the different sub-types of tumors so that we can better tailor our treatments. I am, however, particularly enthusiastic about a recent development called Optune. This device fits like a cap over the head and delivers electric signals that stun malignant cells, stopping growth. There are several neurosurgeons here trained in Optune brain tumor treatment, and we’ve had great results.

Yes, a diagnosis of a brain tumor is scary. But don’t panic, and don’t feel like you have to travel to find qualified specialists. We have the latest technology here at Northern Westchester Hospital, and not only can we treat a wide variety of brain tumors successfully, we can also identify the benign ones that are best left alone. I would know: I have patients who come in every three to five years for checkups whom I’ve been seeing for 25 years. I’ve received holiday cards from them that included pictures of their children, and now have pictures of their grandchildren too.

For more information about brain tumor treatment options or to request a consultation, please call 914.242.8113 or visit the Gamma Knife Center at Northern Westchester Hospital.