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5 Signs of a Brain Tumor That Might Take You by Surprise


man holding head while sitting across from male doctor

We’re all familiar with brain tumors and how serious they can be. But did you know they can have subtle symptoms as well as obvious ones, such as headaches and seizures?

Signs of a brain tumor

Here are 5 signs of a brain tumor that might surprise you.

A sense of change

Brain tumors can cause seizures, but not just the types that cause you to lose consciousness and convulse. According to the American Society of Clinical Oncology, some seizures can cause sensory changes: sensation, vision, smell, hearing, and even taste.

If you’re having this type of seizure, you might be fully awake, alert, and even able to interact with others. This can make it impossible for others to even realize that you’re having a seizure, says the Epilepsy Foundation

Sensory problems aren’t just from seizures—they can come directly from tumors. Penn patient Colleen began having trouble hearing. This eventually led to the diagnosis of acoustic neuroma, a rare brain tumor that affects hearing and balance, according to the Acoustic Neuroma Association.

Watch Colleen’s Story

Huh? Say that again?

Cognitive functions, such as the ability to think or read, can be impacted by brain tumors.

“Some symptoms are really destructive in the sense that people are wide awake and may look completely alert or normal,” says Donald O’Rourke, MD, neurosurgeon and Director of the Human Brain Tumor Tissue Bank at Penn Medicine. “But they are very sick cognitively.”

“This is particularly common with tumors in the midbrain,” he explains. “The two sides of your brain are connected, and they ‘talk’ to each other in order for you to do things like think, write, and remember. We really take that communication for granted. When a tumor disrupts the communication, it’s devastating.”

Far from forgetfulness

Everyone has memory problems now and then, and that is perfectly normal. But when forgetfulness turns to dramatic memory loss, it might be due to another problem, such as a brain tumor.

“This is another time when a person can look fine until you start talking to her,” says Dr. O’Rourke. “It’s sort of like having a family member with Alzheimer’s. This really takes away the substance of the person. And that’s what makes brain tumors different than other types of cancer: It affects the intellectual, cognitive, and emotional abilities.”

Your body is no longer obeying you

Poor coordination on the dance floor is one thing. But persistent fumbling and stumbling when you’re walking, reaching for a glass, or doing other simple activities could signal a brain tumor.

“Symptoms are often dependent on the location of the tumor,” explains Dr. O’Rourke. “For example, if you have a tumor on your cerebellum—the part of your brain involved in coordinating sequences of movements—you may have trouble controlling your arms and legs.”

Pain where you least expect it

Sometimes, a tumor can make its presence known by causing pain—and not always in the form of headaches.

Greg, a Penn patient who had a brain tumor, originally experienced tooth pain. After a year of treatment with no relief, his dentist recommended he see a neurologist. The pain ended up being caused by a brain tumor pressing on his trigeminal nerve, the nerve responsible for carrying sensation from the face to the brain.

Greg didn’t have brain tumor headaches—he had a brain tumor toothache.

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