You’re watching a Netflix tearjerker in which the main character succumbs to a brain tumor (no doubt gracefully and heroically), when you’re suddenly distracted by this thought: Hey, wait a minute, I’ve got some of the same symptoms they had! And zoom, you spin down a rabbit hole of worry, wondering if your headache/nausea/fuzziness was caused by last night’s too-much-wine or if you should call a doctor, stat. And when you hit Dr. Google, you worry even more when myriad websites call out a long list of twitches, aches, and sensations as potential brain-cancer symptoms. Which only increases your headache and fuzziness!
We can dispel some of that confusion with the help of Alyx B. Porter, M.D., a neuro-oncologist at Mayo Clinic, where she is an associate professor of neurology and medical director of the Outpatient Practice at Mayo Clinic in Arizona. She explains the most common symptoms of a brain tumor.
First, know that brain tumors are very rare
Not to dismiss anyone’s concerns, but there’s a good reason to pull yourself out of that worry spiral: According to the American Cancer Society, your lifetime risk of developing a malignant brain or spinal cord tumor is less than 1%. And when primary brain tumors do happen (“primary,” meaning tumors that haven’t metastasized from somewhere else), two-thirds of them aren’t cancerous, says the American Brain Tumor Association. In terms of who’s at risk of brain cancer, “The only known risk factors are exposure to radiation and/or a family history with genetic predisposition to certain tumors or cancers,” says Dr. Porter.
Here, the most common symptoms of a brain tumor
Of all of these symptoms, says Dr. Porter, “Seizure is the most common, followed by weakness or numbness in a limb, then progressive headache that doesn’t respond to medications or is new, then difficulty with language comprehension or expression.”
This is a no-brainer: If you have a seizure and you don’t have a known disorder that causes them, Dr. Porter says that’s a definite signal to talk to a doc.
Weird sensations in your limbs
A gradual loss of sensation or mobility in a limb, over a period of days or weeks, or weakness in a limb, is a potential symptom of a brain tumor as well, says Dr. Porter.
We all get head-bangers from time to time. But you should pay attention if you’re suddenly getting headaches more frequently than is typical for you, if they’re worse than you’ve ever had, or if the head-pounding isn’t responding to whatever remedies you usually turn to. This is a common symptom, according to Dr. Porter.
Difficulty understanding people
Suddenly having trouble comprehending what people are saying or expressing your own thoughts? That may be a symptom, says Dr. Porter. According to the American Brain Tumor Association, this sort of cognitive change may also present itself as difficulty in reading or writing.
Dr. Porter says a change in your vision is another common symptom of a brain tumor. So if things suddenly look all blurry, or you have double vision or notice a problem with your peripheral vision, those are warning signs to pay attention to.
Less-common symptoms of a brain tumor
These three things are sometimes mentioned as symptoms, but they’re rare, according to Dr. Porter:
Changes in balance: Are you suddenly a-kilter or losing balance when you haven’t before, or are you having difficulty walking? It makes sense to check it out.
Fuzziness or confusion: If you’re having trouble remembering or focusing on everyday things, there’s a slight chance that could be a symptom. Keep in mind, though, that brain fog can be a symptom of so many things, including stress, lack of sleep, and menopause.
Sudden personality changes: Becoming suddenly aggressive or sluggish, for instance, would be a rare symptom of a brain tumor.
If you’re still worried about a brain tumor
“I recommend a consultation with a physician when symptoms arise outside of your usual experience with your health,” says Dr. Porter. “At the very least, a baseline assessment can provide significant value should changes occur in the future. “
Remember that any of the symptoms above could be (and probably are) due to something else entirely and don’t necessarily mean you have brain cancer. That said, it’s important to take it seriously when your body is giving you a new signal that something might be off, even if it simply means that you need to chill out more, get better sleep, or have fewer of those too-much-wine evenings.
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