Despite learning the devastating news about her son's brain tumour, Brent underwent surgery, radiation, and chemotherapy, responding well to the treatments.

He led a full life into adulthood, went to college, and worked in a computer lab,” says Marshall, CEO of Brain Tumour Foundation of Canada. “But an aggressive form of the cancer returned when Brent was 23. He died less than a year later.”

Why brain cancer is difficult to diagnose

Of the two types of brain tumours — benign and malignant — benign is more common; however, malignant tumours are largely incurable with brain cancer being the leading cause of cancer death in people under 20.

"While the treatment for brain tumours is complex, there have been positive advances. Traditionally, brain tumours were only treated with radiation, but research has shown that combining radiation with chemotherapy has better outcomes."

Early detection is important, but this can be challenging, because brain cancer is a complex disease. “One of the difficulties is that brain cancer is rarer than other forms of cancer, and we don’t see a lot of cases,” says Dr. Arjun Sahgal, a Radiation Oncologist at Sunnybrook Hospital. “The symptoms — headaches, numbness in the face, vision impairment, seizures — can also mimic other conditions and sometimes they don’t get picked up early.”

Research is improving quality of life

While the treatment for brain tumours is complex, there have been positive advances. Traditionally, brain tumours were only treated with radiation, but research has shown that combining radiation with chemotherapy has better outcomes. “Part of the reason we can now better adapt treatment is that we have a better understanding of the genetic profile of the tumour,” says Dr. Sahgal. “Research is reshaping our understanding, and we are rethinking how we treat brain cancer. Even some people with malignant tumours are living 10 and 20 years longer.”

While clinicians are still searching for the next breakthrough, there is a new suite of drugs being developed that will help to shut tumours down, and researchers are looking at how they can activate a patient’s immune system to attack the cancer.

“Our hope is that brain cancer will become more of a chronic and managed disease, and not a death sentence,” says Marshall. “With continued research, we can get there. It’s that hope for other families that keeps us going.”