It’s probably fair to say that when the ‘C’ word is involved, the conversation is often less than cheerful. Cancer is not exactly a jovial dinner party topic, to say the very least. And when it comes to cancers of the brain, what good could be said?
On the face of it, brain cancer is a sobering subject matter. It is a disease that can target anyone at any age. In its most malignant form, it is almost 100 per cent fatal. In addition, the latest statistics show that primary brain cancer is now the second leading cause of cancer death in women aged 0-44 years (after breast cancer).
Nonetheless, open discussion about brain cancer has many advantages. With dialogue comes a flow of information. And as many of us know, knowledge is power. But can it help us to overcome this disease? Here we discuss why brain cancer is so deadly, and how the experts are brainstorming ways to tackle it head-on.
Primary and secondary
A brain tumour is a mass of abnormal cells growing in the brain. A tumour that originates within the brain itself is a primary brain tumour (as opposed to a secondary brain tumour that starts elsewhere in the body but spreads to involve the brain).
A brain tumour can be either benign or malignant. Benign brain tumours contain non-cancer cells. Although these tumours do not spread, they can press on sensitive areas within the brain and cause serious health problems.
Malignant brain tumours do contain cancer cells. These tumours invade and destroy surrounding tissue, and may spread to other parts of the brain. In rare circumstances, they may even spread to the rest of the body.
Know your numbers
Each year there are over 1,400 new diagnoses of malignant brain cancer in Australia. High grade glioma (HGG) is the most common type in the adult setting, according to Dr Elizabeth Hovey, senior staff specialist in medical oncology at Sydney’s Prince of Wales Hospital.
In many of these cases, patients may go from experiencing good health to being very unwell in a relatively short period of time. Symptoms can be devastating, including headaches, seizures, memory loss, speech disturbance, and weakness or paralysis.
In addition to the debilitating effects, HGG is one of the deadliest of all forms of cancer. To put it into perspective, one person dies from malignant brain cancer every eight hours in Australia.
One of the main reasons that malignant brain cancer remains such a life-threatening disease is that little is known about many aspects of the condition. This is largely because brain cancer has been one of the most under-funded and under-researched of all the cancers.
Although the risk factors for other forms of cancer (including breast cancer and lung cancer) are well defined, Dr Hovey says the potential causes of brain cancer are not fully known. This has made it difficult for experts to outsmart the disease with effective preventative methods.
In addition, brain cancer is extremely difficult to treat. As you might imagine, surgery of the brain is a daunting undertaking. While removal of a tumour mass may be an important objective, it is also imperative that healthy brain tissue is not damaged in the process.
What’s more, surgery for HGG is an even more complicated story because these malignant brain cancers tend to grow tentacle-like tendrils that burrow deep into the brain. These tendrils are difficult to identify and remove during surgery – and any sprout left behind can continue to grow.
Thankfully, some positive brain cancer gains have been made in recent times. In an effort to support urgent brain cancer research, Cancer Council NSW has established a committee, called Grey Matters, to raise public awareness and much-needed funds.
These funds support an important research initiative, which brings together expert scientists and medical specialists from across Australia in collaboration to brainstorm high priority issues.
Dr Hovey says some progress has also been made directly on the treatment front. For example, a new combination of therapy (which includes a form of chemotherapy with fewer side effects, in conjunction with radiotherapy after surgery) has been found to improve survival rates.
There are also several new drugs that are currently being trialled in Australia and overseas. While these encouraging steps are only baby ones, they are fundamental because they provide new hope for medical specialists and, of course, brain cancer patients and their families.
Do mobile phones cause cancer?
Who could get by without their mobile phone these days? We use them to talk wherever and whenever. They are our electronic diaries. We even check our emails and surf the net with them. But this modern day reliance on our mobile phones has left many wondering: could mobile phone use increase our risk of brain cancer?
This topic has been a recent subject of controversy and heated debate. With an ever-increasing number of mobile phone users across the globe, this is a socially critical issue. It’s also a fair enough question considering that mobile phones transmit radiofrequency electromagnetic energy (RFE) – and that this energy is largely absorbed by the brain near to where the phone is held.
However, it is important to note that RFE is a form of non-ionising radiation, and is different from potentially harmful ionising radiation (which is used in x-rays and radiotherapy treatment for cancer).
The Interphone study, published in May 2010, showed no evidence for a link between regular mobile phone use and either glioma or meningioma (two of the most common types of brain cancer). There was, however, a possible increased risk of glioma for users with a high level of use (30 minutes a day or more) – and this finding has prompted the World Health Organisation (WHO) to add mobile phones to their list of possible causes of cancer.
According to Dr Andrew Penman, CEO of Cancer Council NSW, more research is required to adequately determine the longer-term effects of mobile phone use. While this issue continues to be investigated, most experts would agree that it is better to err on the side of caution and minimise exposure.
In this regard, Dr Penman recommends that we use our mobile phones as little as practicable, use a landline where applicable, and consider using a hands-free set – or text – where possible.
For more information visit www.braincanceraction.com.au