Cancer Mythbusters: Brain Tumor Myths

In This Episode

Brain tumors are some of the most complex types of cancers that exist, requiring a multidisciplinary team of many specialists. With the help of Ugonma Chukwueke, MD, a medical oncologist in the Center for Neuro-Oncology at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, we break down some of the most common myths and misconceptions about brain tumors — whether you're looking for information on how they start, what their signs and symptoms are, or how they're treated.

Cancer Mythbusters: Brain Tumor Myths

Read the transcript:

MEGAN: Hi, Megan Riesz, and this is Cancer Mythbusters, a podcast from Dana-Farber Cancer Institute about the many myths and misconceptions in the world of cancer. Every episode, we'll take a look at a myth and debunk it with the help of our world-leading clinicians and researchers.

Brain tumors are some of the most complex types of cancers that exist, requiring a multidisciplinary team of many specialists. There are two main types of brain tumors: primary brain tumors, which originate in the brain, and secondary brain tumors, also known as brain metastasis, which refers to a tumor that has spread to the brain from its area of origin.

Today, with Dr. Ugonma Chukwueke, an oncologist in the Center for Neuro-Oncology at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, we break down some of the most common myths and misconceptions about brain tumors, whether you're looking for information on how they start, what their signs and symptoms are, or how they're treated.

MEGAN: Thanks for joining us.

DR. CHUKWUEKE: Thank you for having me.

MEGAN: So, to kind of start off, people often think brain tumors can be caused by a myriad of factors. Can we run through some of the most common ones, the first being artificial sweeteners — do they cause cancer?

DR. CHUKWUEKE: So, I think the short answer to that is no. I do think that people are oftentimes looking for an explanation for why their tumor started or why they have cancer. Dietary is oftentimes an easy place to think of where there might be any risk factors or associations, but the artificial and nutritional sweeteners, there's really no risk that we're aware of today.

MEGAN: Great. So, along those lines, what about hair coloring?

DR. CHUKWUEKE: That's pretty similar — again, nothing that's really been shown that there's a risk between hair color or dye and development of brain tumors.

MEGAN: OK, great. And something that's kind of all over the internet is the question of microwaves and brain tumors. Can you talk about that as well?

DR. CHUKWUEKE: I think the basis for that, between microwaves and cell phones, people are thinking just in terms of exposure to radiation, and there is literature to suggest that particularly kids that had brain radiation in their childhood or people that have had radiation for other reasons, whether it's to the brain or to the face, we know that years down the line, there is oftentimes a risk for development of different types of brain tumors, primarily primary brain tumors (meningiomas and gliomas). But as far as cell phones and microwaves, again, nothing really in a well-done study that's shown that that's a real risk factor.

MEGAN: OK, great. Thanks for clearing that up. So, now that we've run through that, can we talk about what definitively causes brain tumors, what we know at this point?

DR. CHUKWUEKE: OK. Again, as you explained, there are two different categories of brain tumors. We know of primary as well as secondary brain tumors. In terms of primary brain tumors, the risk factors are very few. Again, this is a scenario where people have received radiation to the brain or face as children. We know that several years or decades down the line, there's oftentimes risk of development of primary brain tumors.

The other risk factors… Again, we think about things that are quite rare — specific genetic syndromes — and there's always a question of "Oh, my mom had a brain tumor — will I?" or "My grandmother had a brain tumor — will I?" And when we think about genetic syndromes and things that are hereditary, these are, again, also rare syndromes. The typical scenario is that someone had a brain tumor, breast cancer, a bone tumor, thyroid disease, so we think about people that have had multiple brain tumors in multiple family members, and that might raise a suspicion for this being genetic or hereditary. Outside of those scenarios, there's not really anything that we think of where, because a family member had the brain tumor, you yourself will then have one.

When we think about secondary brain tumors (or metastatic brain tumors), the common ones being tumors that come from the lungs (so, we think about smoking and maybe other occupational exposures), breast cancer (so, there's a whole other set of genetic syndromes that are associated with breast cancer), and then melanoma. In terms of skin care, sunscreen and that sort of thing, we would urge you to do your due diligence with protecting your skin.

MEGAN: Makes sense. Thank you. So, another misconception is that signs and symptoms are the same across the board for all kinds of patients. What are some common signs and symptoms for brain tumors, and are they always the same for everyone?

DR. CHUKWUEKE: For that question, again, the signs and symptoms are very different. The brain is sort of like real estate, where location is the key. Someone can have a big tumor in a location of the brain that really does not have a lot of function for that person, and they may not really have any symptoms, or the symptoms may be mild or minimal, but in another person, if the tumor is in the right place, or if the irritation is in the right place, that can cause a number of symptoms. It's really down to where do we think there's a tumor, where do we think there's an abnormality, and that will really dictate what we see on examination or what an MRI or CT scan might show.

MEGAN: OK, great. So, let's get down to treatment. There's a myth that there are no good treatment options. Can you talk about this a little bit?

DR. CHUKWUEKE: Sure. Again, I'm glad you started the podcast with explaining what the different types and what the different categories are for brain tumors. To take the piece with secondary brain tumors or brain metastatic lesions, it's really dependent upon where that tumor came from, so that will help us with thinking about chemotherapy. For both classes of tumors, both primary and secondary brain tumors, surgery and radiation are oftentimes used. We know that that can be effective in controlling the tumor in some cases.

MEGAN: Great. So, any other myths or misconceptions you want to put to rest for our listeners who might be patients or families and friends of patients?

DR. CHUKWUEKE: I would say, if you're having symptoms, if anything is concerning you, please start with your primary care doctor, and they will be able to guide you in the right direction as far what other testing might be done. I would say to stay away from the internet, or really, try to get your information from more worthy and verified websites, because there can be a lot of myths, as we talked about this morning, that might lead you down the wrong direction or cause too much unnecessary worry or anxiety.

MEGAN: Great. Well, thanks so much for clearing all this up and for joining us today.

DR. CHUKWUEKE: Thank you for having me.

MEGAN: This has been an episode of Cancer Mythbusters, a podcast from Dana-Farber Cancer Institute. You can listen to this podcast at You can also download this via iTunes or Stitcher. I'm Megan Riesz — thank you for listening!

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