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8 Silent Signs You Could Have a Brain Tumor

The signs and symptoms of brain cancer look an awful lot like other everyday ailments, from headaches to depression. Here's when to consider seeing your doctor for a workup.

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Brain cancer: A scary diagnosis

The good news is that brain cancer affects less than 1 percent of the world’s population, according to the American Cancer Society; the bad news is that brain tumors are often accompanied by very few symptoms, and brain tumor symptoms disguise themselves as everyday ailments such as headaches and exhaustion. Read on for eight silent but serious brain tumor symptoms or signs of a brain tumor, and how to know whether or not you should see a doctor.

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Signs of a brain tumor: Persistent headaches

It can be very difficult for even doctors to tell the difference between headaches (or full-on migraines) that are signs of a brain tumor and those resulting from other reasons. “The best indicator is a new daily headache that won’t seem to go away,” says Mike Chen, MD, PhD, associate professor in the division of neurosurgery, department of surgery, at City of Hope in California. “These headaches tend to get worse over time and are often present when you wake up in the morning when intracranial pressure is high from lying in bed for…long periods of time.” This pain can vary greatly regardless of the size or growth rate of the tumor. “A small, fast-growing tumor can cause as severe a headache as a large, slow-growing tumor,” says Santosh Kesari, MD, PhD, neuro-oncologist and chair of the department of translational neuro-oncology and neurotherapeutics at John Wayne Cancer Institute in Santa Monica, CA. And there’s no specific type of headache that can predict whether or not a person has a brain tumor. The key is to be on the lookout for new, persistent headaches, especially those that do not respond well to treatments such as over-the-counter medicines. Find out the 15 subtle signs of cancer that women are likely to ignore.

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Signs of a brain tumor: A subtle loss of vision

Patients experiencing this particular brain tumor symptom may not be aware of it at all, let alone associate it with a brain tumor. They may not even notice a change in their vision quality until they continually bump into things on one side of the body because of the vision loss or have multiple car accidents that occur on the side of the loss. “This particular symptom of impaired peripheral vision is known as bitemporal hemianopsia,” says Christopher Carrubba, MD, co-director for medical education at Med School Tutors. “We often see this symptom with pituitary tumors that compress the optic chiasm, or part of the visual pathway.” (The symptom is also called bitemporal hemianopia) But cancer isn’t the only potential culprit: Check out these other surprising diseases that eye doctors can diagnose first.

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Signs of a brain tumor: Weakness and lethargy

The motor cortex of the brain initiates and controls muscle movement throughout the body. “The right motor cortex controls the left side of your body, and the left motor cortex controls the right side of your body,” says Dr. Chen. “If there are tumors anywhere along this pathway, these signals are completely disrupted and the result is loss of function.” If you have a brain tumor, you may not experience pain in your limbs, but your left or right leg or arm may not respond the way you’re used to—or at all. Weak legs can be caused by a variety of ailments, however, including a significant vitamin D deficiency. Don’t miss these 13 subtle signs of cancer that men are likely to ignore.

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Signs of a brain tumor: Difficulty forming words

Another common brain tumor symptom is slurred or slow, halting speech. “Language problems—such as stuttering, difficulty naming objects, or [difficulty] understanding what others are saying—are key symptoms of a tumor in the frontal or temporal lobes,” says Dr. Carrubba. These are areas of the brain associated with forming words and language comprehension. There are two speech centers in the brain, typically located on the left side: Wernicke’s area, which allows us to understand and comprehend speech, and Broca’s area, which plays a role in producing language, including effects on the muscles that create sound. When a tumor is present in the brain, both abilities are often obstructed, although it ultimately depends on the location of the tumor.

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Signs of a brain tumor: Moody feelings and risky behavior

“Patients suffering from a brain tumor may develop depression, anger, or anxiety, even if they don’t commonly exhibit these types of emotions,” says Sumeet Vadera, MD, a neurosurgeon at the University of California, Irvine. This is most often related to a tumor directly involving or compressing portions of the frontal lobe, which is responsible for many of our personality traits. Patients with signs of a brain tumor may also experience changes in behavior, including becoming more angry or agitated, engaging in more risky behaviors, acting overtly sexual, or showing a loss of inhibition. “A large, slowly growing tumor in the frontal lobe can even alter personality and judgment so far as to be mistaken for criminal behavior or psychiatric problems,” says Dr. Chen.

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Signs of a brain tumor: Loss of hearing or ear ringing

The temporal lobe, located in the bottom middle part of the cortex behind your ears, is responsible for processing your ability to hear sounds, as well as your ability to comprehend and understand language and conversation. “If you’re experiencing hearing loss from one side or a constant ringing sensation, known as tinnitus, you’ll want to make an appointment with your doctor, who can determine whether your symptoms are severe enough to see a neurologist,” says Dr. Carrubba. Ear, nose and throat (ENT) specialists can also evaluate these symptoms. Find out exactly what the ringing in your ears is trying to tell you.

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Signs of a brain tumor: Infertility

The brain controls nearly everything in our bodies, including our production of hormones. “It does this by means of an extension known as the pituitary gland, a pea-sized structure located at the base of the brain,” says Dr. Chen. Tumors affecting the pituitary gland can cause too much of a hormone to be released, or too little, depending on the circumstances. Some women have difficulty conceiving with a pituitary tumor, although breastfeeding is not necessarily an issue. The most common pituitary tumor, a prolactinoma, often causes abnormal breast milk production called galactorrhea.

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Signs of a brain tumor: Loss of balance

One of the many areas where the brain plays a vital role is coordinated muscle movement and balance. If you start to find walking difficult, especially in the dark, and you tend to lean toward one side, this could be one of the brain tumor symptoms caused by tumors in the cerebellum, the area of the brain responsible for balance and coordination. Now that you know the signs of a brain tumor, learn the truth about these 50 rampant cancer myths you need to stop believing.

Sources
  • American Cancer Society: "Key Statistics for Brain and Spinal Cord Tumors."
  • Mike Chen, MD, PhD, associate professor in the division of neurosurgery, department of surgery, at City of Hope in CA.
  • Santosh Kesari, MD, PhD, neuro-oncologist and chair of the department of translational neuro-oncology and neurotherapeutics at John Wayne Cancer Institute in Santa Monica, CA.
  • Christopher Carrubba, MD, co-director for medical education at Med School Tutors.
  • Sumeet Vadera, MD, a neurosurgeon at the University of California, Irvine.
  • Cancer.net, Doctor-Approved Patient Information from ASCO (American Society of Clinical Oncology): "Brain Tumor: Symptoms and Signs."
Medically reviewed by Russell H. Greenfield, MD, on August 22, 2019