Brain tumors come in all shapes and sizes—and so do their symptoms.
“The key to a tumor’s symptoms really depends on its location,” says Theodore Schwartz, MD, a neurosurgeon with the Weill Cornell Brain and Spine Center.
For example, if you have a tumor near the part of your brain that controls your arm or your eyesight, your symptoms may include limb weakness or blurry vision, Schwartz says.
When you consider that every cell in your brain can form a tumor—and that your brain controls or interprets information from every part of your body—the list of possible tumor symptoms encompasses “almost anything imaginable,” Schwartz says.
Still, some signs and symptoms are more common than others. Here’s what to watch out for.
Regardless of your type of tumor, seizures are often one of the first signs of trouble. “Irritation from the tumor makes the [brain’s] neurons fire uncontrollably, and you get abnormal movements,” Schwartz says. Like tumors, seizures take many forms. You could experience whole-body convulsions, or jerking or flexing confined to one limb or one part of your face.
If you find yourself fumbling with keys, missing steps, or struggling with your balance, that sort of clumsiness in your arms, legs, or hands could be a sign of trouble, Schwartz says. Problems speaking, swallowing, or controlling your facial expressions are some of the ways clumsiness could show up in or around your head, he adds.
Like clumsiness, losing feeling in a part of your body or face is something to keep an eye on, Schwartz says. Particularly if a tumor forms on the brain stem—the place where your brain connects with your spinal cord—you may experience loss of feeling or clumsy movements.
4# Changes in memory or thinking
While it’s true that tumors can cause big shifts in a person’s behavior or personality, the types of radical transformations you sometimes hear about—or see in movies—are uncommon, Schwartz says. People with tumors are more likely to have issues remembering things, to feel confused, or to suffer less-dramatic thinking problems, he says.
Feeling queasy or sick to your stomach, especially if those symptoms are persistent and unexplained, could be a sign of a tumor, Schwartz says.
6# Vision changes
Blurry vision, double vision, and loss of vision are all associated with tumors, Schwartz says. You may also see floating spots or shapes—or what’s known as an “aura.”
7# Not usually headaches
Breathe easy. Despite what most of us would assume, headaches are often not an early indicator of a brain tumor. “They could come on with a very large tumor, but they’re not usually one of the first symptoms to emerge,” Schwartz says.
Everything else you need to know
What causes a tumor? Schwartz says some genetic disorders can lead to brain tumors. “But the majority of tumors arise in people with no known risk factors or predisposing factors,” he explains. Children and adults over 60 are more likely to develop tumors, but “everyone is at risk at any age,” he adds.
Despite what you may have heard, cell phones are not a known risk factor. “That’s a common misconception, but there’s no compelling evidence that pushes us to consider a link between cell phones and tumors,” he says.
For large or malignant brain tumors, treatments could involve surgery, medications, radiation, or chemotherapy. The good news: Not all brain tumors are serious. “Many tumors are small and benign, and require no treatment,” Schwartz explains. “If we find one, we’ll just monitor it for growth or changes.”