Brain and spinal tumours

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Risk factors for brain and spinal cord tumours

A risk factor is something that increases the risk of developing cancer. It could be a behaviour, substance or condition. Most cancers are the result of many risk factors. But sometimes brain and spinal cord tumours develop in people who don’t have any of the risk factors described below.

In general, brain and spinal cord tumours are most common in children and older adults. Some types of brain and spinal cord tumours are more common in children and others are more common in adults. Most types of brain and spinal tumours are more common in men. But some types, such as meningiomas, are more common in women.

Some people with certain genetic conditions have a higher than average risk for brain and spinal cord tumours. Talk to your doctor about your risk. If you have a genetic condition that increases the risk of brain and spinal cord tumours, you may need to visit your doctor more often to check for brain and spinal cord tumours. Your doctor will recommend what tests you should have and how often you should have them.

The following are risk factors for brain and spinal cord tumours. All of the risk factors are not modifiable. This means that you can’t change them. Until we learn more about these risk factors, there are no specific ways you can reduce your risk.

Risk factors are generally listed in order from most to least important. But in most cases, it is impossible to rank them with absolute certainty.

Risk factors

Previous radiation therapy

Certain genetic conditions

Family history of brain tumours

Weakened immune system

There is convincing evidence that the following factors increase your risk for brain and spinal cord tumours.

Previous radiation therapy

People who had radiation therapy to the head to treat cancer or another health condition have a higher risk of developing brain tumours.

Certain genetic conditions

People with certain genetic conditions have a higher risk of developing brain and spinal cord tumours:

Neurofibromatosis affects the nerves, muscles, bones and skin. Both neurofibromatosis type 1 (von Recklinghausen disease, or NF1) and neurofibromatosis type 2 (acoustic neuroma, or NF2) increase the risk for brain and spinal cord cancer. But these cancers occur more often in people with NF1. Some research shows that brain and spinal tumours caused by NF2 tend to be slow growing and non-cancerous.

Von Hippel-Lindau (VHL) syndrome is a rare condition where people develop tumours and cysts in many different parts of the body. Tumours may be non-cancerous or cancerous.

Li-Fraumeni syndrome is a rare condition that increases the risk of developing different types of cancer, including brain tumours.

Tuberous sclerosis is also called Bourneville’s disease. It causes non-cancerous tumours to develop in the brain and spinal cord, skin, heart or kidneys.

Turcot syndrome causes many growths, called polyps, to form in the colon. It also causes tumours of the brain and spinal cord.

Basal cell nevus syndrome is also called Gorlin syndrome or nevoid basal cell carcinoma syndrome. It causes problems with several organs and increases the risk of developing different types of tumours, including brain and spinal cord tumours.

Cowden syndrome causes many non-cancerous growths, called hamartomas, to develop in different parts of the body, but most commonly in the skin and mucous membranes. Cowden syndrome increases the risk of developing certain cancers, including brain tumours.

Family history of brain tumours

A family history of brain tumours means that one or more close blood relatives have or had a brain tumour. Some families have more cases of brain tumours than would be expected by chance. Sometimes it is not clear if the family’s pattern of brain tumours is due to chance, shared lifestyle factors, an inherited risk factor that has been passed from parents to children through genes or a combination of these factors.

Weakened immune system

The immune system is a complex group of cells and organs that defend your body against infection, disease and foreign substances. When the immune system isn’t working well, you are at greater risk for primary central nervous system lymphoma (PCNSL). People at high risk include those who:

  • take drugs to suppress their immune system after an organ transplant
  • receivetreatments that suppress their immune system, such as chemotherapy, to treat other cancers
  • have HIV or AIDS

Possible risk factors

Using cellphones is a possible risk factor for brain and spinal cord tumours. This means that it has been linked with brain and spinal cord tumours, but there is not enough evidence to show that it is a risk factor.

No link to brain and spinal cord tumours

Significant research shows that there is no link between polio vaccines or alcohol and a higher risk of brain and spinal cord tumours.

Questions to ask your healthcare team

To make the decisions that are right for you, ask your healthcare team questions about risks.

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The thin, moist layer of tissue that lines some organs and body cavities, including the nose, mouth, lungs, airways, vagina and gastrointestinal (GI) tract.

Glands in the mucous membrane make mucus (a thick, slippery fluid).

Also called mucosa.

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