When The Tragically Hip frontman Gord Downie was diagnosed with a brain tumour known as glioblastoma in 2016, many Canadians sought the advice of Dr. Google. And while the internet can be a starting place for research, the Brain Tumour Foundation of Canada wants Canadians to use good, accurate, and reliable information when considering their brain health.

The foundation estimates that 27 people are diagnosed with a brain tumour every day. Exact figures are unknown, which is why the foundation is working to establish a national registry and create accurate Canadian data by 2019. The most common type of primary malignant brain tumour is glioblastoma multiforme. “People should know that brain tumours don’t discriminate.  They can occur in people of all ages, cultural, social, and economic backgrounds,” explains Susan Marshall, Executive Director of the Brain Tumour Foundation.

Know the signs

Signs and symptoms are not always easy to pin down — a headache might be mistaken for the flu, or weakness and paralysis for a stroke. Some occur suddenly, such as a seizure, whereas others may develop slowly over time. Each person experiences a unique set of symptoms which range from behavioural and cognitive changes to double or blurred vision, dizziness, hearing impairment, nausea, and vomiting. No one symptom can be considered more important than others, Marshall says.

Not all brain tumours are fatal or cancerous, but a non-malignant diagnosis can still be devastating. And with the amount of information available online, the discovery process can be overwhelming. The foundation advocates contacting a medical professional with questions and symptoms because every path to diagnosis is unique and early detection can be critical.

Despite all the information, many unknowns remain Marshall says. “We don’t know what causes brain tumours or how to prevent them. That’s why it’s so important for people to be aware of the signs and symptoms and to talk with their doctor if they’re concerned,” she notes.

Fact check the myths

One of the biggest myths is that brain tumours are rare, but there are 120 known types of brain tumours. They’re the leading cause of solid cancer death in people under the age of 20 and the third leading cause of solid cancer death in young adults aged 20-39.

It’s also often believed that non-malignant tumours are better or that they never require chemotherapy. Not true. Many believe that life returns to normal after treatment, but a patient’s life may never be the same, and for others, active treatment may be lengthy. Though not always fatal, a brain tumour is always life-changing. In the first year after a diagnosis, an average patient may make 52 visits to a health care provider for blood work, surgery, radiation, or chemotherapy.
“Because brain tumours are located at the control centre for thought, emotion, and movement, they can dramatically affect an individual’s physical and cognitive abilities and quality of life,” Marshall states.

While brain tumours can be devastating, an early diagnosis can lead to better patient outcomes, and that’s why the Brain Tumour Foundation of Canada is recommending that people know the most common signs and symptoms. “Every day in Canada, research is looking into the cause of and a cure for brain tumours. We want people to know that there is always hope,” says Marshall.

A good starting place for more information is the Brain Tumour Foundation of Canada’s website, which has fact sheets and answers to frequently asked questions. If you’re one of the estimated 55,000 Canadians living with a brain tumour today, contact the Foundation for support or for more information about the national registry.