A brain tumour is a growth of cells in the brain that multiplies in an abnormal, uncontrollable way. It can either be cancerous (malignant) or non-cancerous (benign). Brain tumours are graded from 1 to 4 according to their behaviour, such as how fast they grow and how likely they are to grow back after treatment.
One in ten brain tumours is on the pituitary gland, a pea-sized gland that sits just below the brain. The type Tara Palmer-Parkinson had is a prolactinoma, a benign (non-cancerous), slow-growing tumour.
The pituitary gland is responsible for controlling many of the other endocrine glands in the body, such as the thyroid and adrenal glands.
It also makes important hormones such as growth hormone and prolactin, which stimulates the production of breast milk.
Many pituitary tumours exist for years without causing symptoms and some never do. If the tumour is large (over 10mm) it may press on the optic nerve and cause headaches and visual problems. Most are under 10mm in size.
The most common type of pituitary adenoma is ‘non-functioning’, meaning it stops the gland from producing one or more of its hormones. Alternatively, a tumour may begin to generate an excess of a hormone.
Benign brain tumours can affect people of any age, although they’re more likely over 50. Around 4,300 are diagnosed each year in the UK. Possible causes include genetic conditions and previous radiotherapy to the head.
Symptoms to look out for:
The symptoms of a brain tumour vary depending on the exact part of the brain that’s affected. Common symptoms include:
- severe, persistent headaches
- seizures (fits)
- persistent nausea, vomiting and drowsiness
- mental or behavioural changes, such as memory problems or changes in personality
- progressive weakness or paralysis on one side of the body, vision problems, or speech problems
Sometimes, you may not have any symptoms to begin with or they may only develop very slowly over time.
When to see your GP
See your GP if you have persistent symptoms of a brain tumour. While it’s unlikely to be a tumour, it’s best to be sure by getting a proper diagnosis.
If your GP is unable to identify a more likely cause of your symptoms, they may refer you to a neurologist for further assessment and tests, such as a brain scan.
Treatment and recovery:
Diagnosis is made using a blood test, then a CT or MRI scan.
The main treatment for most brain tumours is surgery, which aims to remove as much of the abnormal tissue as possible.
It’s not always possible to remove the entire tumour, so further treatment with radiotherapy and/or chemotherapy may be necessary to kill any abnormal cells left behind.
For most benign tumours, treatment is often successful and a full recovery is possible, although there’s sometimes a small chance the tumour could come back. Regular follow-up appointments will normally be recommended to monitor this.
The outlook for malignant tumours is generally less good, although this varies depending on things such as where the tumour is in the brain, your age, and your general health. Unfortunately, a cure is often not possible and most tumours will return after treatment.
If a tumour does come back, treatment will aim to relieve your symptoms and prolong life by controlling the growth of the tumour.
Very few pituitary prolactinoma need surgery as they often can be shrunk using medication. Drugs called dopamine agonists are used to reduce the amount of prolactin produced. Prolactin levels usually fall to normal within a few weeks, symptoms subside and the tumour starts to shrink.