Q&A Topic: Brain Tumor Breakthroughs

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Deborah L. Benzil, MD, FACS, FAANS

Q. A close family member was recently diagnosed with a brain tumor, which is terrifying. Are brain tumors really treatable?

A. Hearing you have a brain tumor can be terrifying, but the situation isn’t necessarily hopeless. Today’s technology has come a long way, often making it a curable condition. Basically, brain tumors fall into two major categories—cancerous or benign. Benign brain tumors are very treatable. In fact, some only need to be monitored. 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.

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Q. Since this is a family member, how do I determine my own risk?

A. Determining your risk 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 occur, 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, you should see your primary care physician immediately.”

Q. What steps should you take if you have these symptoms?

A. Having these 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 many new technologies that can make surgery much safer and easier on patients.

Q. What successful treatment options are available?

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A. Advanced techniques like Gamma Knife and stereotactic guidance offer minimally invasive solutions. Patients can even be 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 can remember sending a nurse back to work 48 hours after treatment for a brain tumor. She was working in a medical setting, and none of her co-workers even knew she had had surgery! On the other hand, while neurosurgeons are able to successfully manage benign and secondary tumors, primary brain tumors still present a substantial challenge. We’re still trying to understand the different subtypes of tumors so that we can better tailor our treatments.

Q. Are there treatment options that are particularly promising?

A. A recent development called Optune has had encouraging results. The Optune device fits like a cap over the head and delivers electric signals that stun malignant cells, stopping growth. It’s important to remember that having a brain tumor is not a death sentence. We have the latest technology at Northern Westchester Hospital, making it possible to not only treat a wide variety of tumors successfully, but also to identify the benign tumors that are best left alone. 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.

Dr. Benzil is a Board-Certified Neurosurgeon currently serving as Vice President of the American Association of Neurological Surgeons (AANS) with faculty appointment through Columbia School of Medicine.  She completed both her undergraduate and neurosurgical residency at Brown University in Rhode Island and an additional brain tumor fellowship through the National Institutes of Health.  Dr. Benzil has been recognized for her many scientific, clinical, and organizational accomplishments in neurosurgery nationally and internationally.  Her practice with MKMG specializes in treatment of brain tumors, the entire spectrum of spinal disorders, peripheral nerve problems, and treatment with stereotactic radiosurgery.  

Northern Westchester Hospital
Neuro-oncology, Spine Surgery, Stereotactic Radiosurgery
Learn More About Dr. Benzil

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Learn about:
Gamma Knife treatment for brain tumors

More from Dr. Benzil:
Concussions and the Young Athlete

Northern Westchester Hospital is a proud member of Northwell Health (formerly North Shore-LIJ Health System).

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