About brain cancer

What should people know about cancer of the brain and other parts of the nervous system?

The brain, spinal cord, meninges, cranial nerves and other parts of the nervous system are responsible for communication in the body. Together, they control and organize all of the body's functions so that they work together.

Cancers that start in the brain usually do not spread outside of the nervous system. However, many other types of cancer (such as lung cancer and breast cancer) frequently spread to the brain. This is called metastasis. The data on this website show only those cases of cancer that began in the brain and other parts of the nervous system. Cases of cancer that began in other parts of the body and spread to the brain (metastases) are not included here. Unless otherwise noted, benign brain tumors are also not included.

Each year, about 800 men and over 600 women in New York State are diagnosed with cancer of the brain and nervous system. About 500 men and about 400 women die from this disease each year in New York State.

Who gets brain cancer?

Cancers of the brain occur in people of all ages, but are more frequent in two age groups, children under the age of 15 and adults 65 years of age and over. Cancers of the spinal cord are less common than cancers of the brain. Cancers of the brain and other parts of the nervous system are more common in White people than in Black or Asian people. Tumors of the meninges, which are usually benign, are more common among women than men.

What factors increase risk for developing brain cancer?

At this time, the causes of brain cancer are not well understood. However, scientists agree that certain factors increase a person's risk of developing this disease. These risk factors include:

  • Hereditary conditions and family history. People with certain inherited diseases (Li-Fraumeni cancer family syndrome, tuberous sclerosis, von Recklinghausen's disease [neurofibromatosis type 1], neurofibromatosis type 2, von Hippel-Lindau disease and familial polyposis) are more likely to get cancer of the brain and other parts of the nervous system.
  • Ionizing radiation. Exposure to high levels of ionizing radiation in the head area, such as radiation treatments for other cancers, is known to increase the risk of brain cancer.

What other risk factors for brain cancer are scientists studying?

Scientists are studying other possible risk factors for cancer of the brain and other parts of the nervous system such as electromagnetic fields, use of cellular phones, viruses, injuries, and diet. Exposure to chemicals in the workplace such as petroleum products, vinyl chloride and others may also be associated with an increased risk of getting brain cancer. Additional research is needed to determine the role, if any, these factors may have in the development of brain cancer.

Is the number of people with cancer of the brain and other parts of the nervous system increasing?

Cancers that begin in the brain do not appear to be increasing. The number of people with metastatic brain tumors (those that have spread to the brain from another part of the body) is increasing. Cancer patients are living longer, giving cancer cells more time to spread to the brain.

What can I do to reduce my chances of getting brain cancer?

To help reduce the risk of getting cancer of the brain and other parts of the nervous system:

  • Be aware of your family history and discuss any concerns with your health care provider.
  • Discuss the risks and benefits of medical imaging, such as CT scans, with your health care provider to avoid unnecessary exposure to ionizing radiation. This is particularly important for children.
  • Be aware of workplace health and safety rules and follow them.

How else can I reduce my risk for cancer?

  • Choose a healthy diet to achieve and maintain a healthy weight. Eat more vegetables, fruits and whole grains and eat less red and processed (e.g., bacon, sausage, luncheon meat, hot dogs) meats. These actions may reduce the risk of developing many types of cancer as well as other diseases.
  • Exercise regularly.
  • Do not smoke. If you currently smoke, quit. Avoid exposure to second hand smoke. For more information on quitting smoking, visit the NYS Smoker's Quitline at www.nysmokefree.com or call 1-866-NY-QUITS.
  • Talk with your health care provider about recommended cancer screenings.

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