Approximately 18,000 people are diagnosed with brain cancer each year, and almost 13,000 Americans die of brain cancer yearly. Brain cancer is slightly more common in men. Prognosis is more favorable in younger (age under 40) patients. Brain tumors can be classified as either benign or malignant. Most astrocytomas are classified as malignant. They invade surrounding normal brain tissue, and compromise normal brain function. Astrocytomas are the most common malignant brain tumor. The most aggressive of the astrocytomas is the glioblastoma multiforme. Other malignant brain tumors include oligodendrogliomas and ependymomas. There is usually no known cause in most patients who develop a brain tumor.
Malignant brain tumors are graded on a scale from 1 to 4, with 4 being the most aggressive. As the grade of the tumor increases, the rapidity of growth and aggressiveness of the tumor tends to increase.The most common malignant primary brain tumors are the Grade 3 and 4 astrocytomas. These tumors tend to be relatively large when they present, often measuring greater than 4 cm in size. Common symptoms include headache, pressure symptoms such as nausea, gait instability, or seizure activity. If possible, these tumors are completely resected, but it is often times impossible to completely resect them because of their proximity to or involvement of surrounding critical normal structures in the brain.
Following surgery, whether biopsy or complete resection, radiation therapy and chemotherapy are usually recommended. Several chemotherapeutic agents have recently been found to be useful in treating brain tumors, particularly temozolomide (Temodar ®). These agents are generally well-tolerated and are leading to improved outcomes, although cure is still elusive.