Repeated headaches can signal tumour in the brain, don’t ignore

Monday June 18 2018

Shot of a mature woman experiencing a headache.

Shot of a mature woman experiencing a headache. 

By Dr Lugano Wilson

Sarah* had been using spectacles for her eye problems and anti-pain medication for her longstanding complain – headache, for a while now. The 31-year-old teacher and a resident of Arusha was having severe headaches, which later progressed into blurred vision. She assumed that her headaches were associated with the current eye issues hence she visited eye clinics whenever the problem recurred.

In May last year, the situation got worse presenting with symptoms of general body weakness, nausea and vomiting. Sarah had to seek self-referral to KCMC hospital in Moshi where she was re-evaluated through tests and scans. She was diagnosed to have a brain tumour, specifically identified by doctors as ‘meningioma’.

Meningioma is the tumour that forms on membranes that cover the brain and spinal cord just inside the skull. Notably the tumour forms on meninges, which are the layers of the membranes that surround your brain. These tumours are slow growing; it is asserted that 90 per cent are not cancerous.

It occurs more often in women and usually appears between the age of 40 and 60, but they can begin growing in childhood or later in life, the lurid news is that they can recur, but the recurrence rate is said to be less than 20 per cent after complete removal.

Sarah was referred to Dar es Salaam for further neurological treatment – a service that is scarce in the country such that there is only a single fully fledged neurosurgery institute in the country based in Dar es Salaam. Thus, Sarah like many others had to travel a long distance in pursuit of the service.

Sarah’s tumour was removed through a four hour procedure known as Craniotomy. The tumour measured 55x46 mm. Sarah woke up after a successful surgery that no trace of tumour was left inside.

Cause and symptoms

The cause is still unknown; however exposure to radiation is the only known risk factor. Some experts say it runs through families, though there are ongoing efforts to look for the cause.

Symptoms for meningioma usually starts gradually just like Sarah’s case. At times symptoms may not be obvious and it also depends on the location and occurs as the outcome of tumour compressing on the nearby structures. Many cases never produce symptoms but occasionally symptoms may include seizure, dementia, trouble talking, one side weakness, vision problems, at times loss of bladder control may also occur. Sarah experienced just some of those symptoms.

Diagnosis can be made through CT and MRI scans – these are scans that provide diagnostic images of the inside of your body. But the questions to those in the driver’s seat are countless; Where is the service found? Who can pay for the service? What’s the cost of the surgery? How about those who can’t travel to Dar es Salaam for the treatment? The responses to these provoking questions paint a decimal picture of the health services delivery systems in the country.

The risk of developing meningioma can be reduced by maintaining normal weight and by avoiding unnecessary dental x-rays.

The tumour can be removed and can result in permanent cure if and when the tumour is superficial on the Dural surface and readily accessible.

A legion of celebrities around the world has been diagnosed with meningioma, for example Kyle Kuric born in 1989 who is an American basketball player currently with Spanish club CB Gran Canaria. He began with presenting symptoms like Sarah’s of persistent headaches early in the 2015-16. Tests depicted that he had meningioma as a result he underwent surgery in Barcelona to remove the tumour.

My advice is don’t entertain long standing headaches, do not hesitate to seek further advice, just the way Sarah did.

*not her real name