Is it at all possible to see a brain tumor from the outside of one’s head or even elsewhere?
What changes to the appearance of the head, scalp or elsewhere can a brain tumor actually cause?
A malignant brain tumor is among the most frightening of diseases.
One of the reasons for this is because the blood-brain barrier blocks chemotherapy drugs from reaching the brain to kill the cancer cells.
Another reason is that often, the removal of such a tumor carries a considerable risk of permanent neurological damage.
While many cancers can cause external signs (e.g., leukemia causing a nosebleed; lymphoma causing a lump; uterine cancer causing unusual vaginal discharge; ovarian cancer causing abdominal distension), you might be wondering if a brain tumor can somehow create an external sign on the head or somewhere else on the body.
What may initially come to mind is the idea of a brain tumor causing a lump on the head.
But there are other ways that a brain tumor can show externally.
“Hyperostosis (thickening of the skull) has been seen in patients with meningiomas,” begins Jonathan Stegall, MD, an integrative oncologist and medical director for The Center for Advanced Medicine, an adult cancer treatment center in Alpharetta, GA.
“These are typically benign tumors, but they can be malignant and can also be mimicked by malignant brain tumors such as glioblastoma,” adds Dr. Stegall.
If you’re familiar with malignant brain tumors, you’ve certainly heard of the merciless glioblastoma multiforme (GBM), which is incurable, even though in rare cases, patients have lived beyond 10 years after diagnosis.
There is a case report, says Dr. Stegall, of a GBM spreading to the skin.
This spread was the result of a metastasis: cells from the primary tumor in the brain disengaging from the mass and traveling to a distant site of the body.
Metastasis to the brain, from a primary cancer in an organ such as breast or skin (melanoma), is fairly common.
However, it’s extremely rare for the opposite to occur: a primary brain tumor spreading beyond the head.
In the case of a GBM, according to a 2011 paper, only about a dozen cases of visible metastases to the skin have occurred.
Furthermore, most of those cases occurred after the surgery to remove the tumor.
This means if you discover an odd bump under your skin, even if it’s on your scalp, it’s extremely unlikely to be from a brain tumor.
However, this doesn’t mean it’s unlikely to be any of the three main types of skin cancer: basal cell carcinoma, squamous cell carcinoma and melanoma.
A new odd bump can be so many things, actually, which is why you should have your doctor inspect any new lump that doesn’t go away after a few weeks.
What about other types of brain tumors?
Researchers investigated 77 patients over a four-year period to see if any had skin manifestations of their brain tumors.
The following signs were observed in 24 of the patients: itchiness (particularly of the nostrils), pigmentation changes and a thickening of the outer layer of the skin.
Lumps on the Head from a Brain Tumor
Here is the case of a toddler who had a secondary brain tumor (metastatic neuroblastoma) that was causing visible lumps on her head.
Brain tumors can cause many symptoms that can be observed by the patient as well as others, such as weakness, clumsiness, speech difficulties, trouble swallowing, inability to look upward, one eye bulging, vomiting and seizures.
But these observed symptoms are not the same as something looking different on an external location of the body such as a lump on the head.
The answer to the question, “Can a brain tumor be visible on the outside,” is technically “Yes,” because a meningioma that infiltrates or erodes the skull can cause a bump to start protruding on the head.
We need to look at this frightening symptom carefully. A rising bump on the head from a meningioma is a rare sign of this tumor.
But there are documented cases. Here’s another one. So indeed, a new bump on the head that actually changes the landscape of one’s head warrants a prompt examination by a physician.
However, there are benign causes of “bumps” on the head, such as a cyst or harmless mass of fatty tissue.
If your head seems to be growing a lump or elevated surface – you need to see your doctor. It probably isn’t a brain tumor, but – let’s face it: If the surface of your scalp is changing in shape, this is not normal.
One thing is for sure, though: A brain tumor will not make your head, overall, bigger.
Jonathan Stegall, MD, provides a long-awaited remedy for our cancer problem. Having a successful integrative oncology practice in Atlanta, GA, he’s seen firsthand what works and what doesn’t with cancer treatment. Dr. Stegall is the creator of the Cancer Secrets Podcast and author of “Cancer Secrets,” available on Amazon.
Lorra Garrick has been covering medical, fitness and cybersecurity topics for many years, having written thousands of articles for print magazines and websites, including as a ghostwriter. She’s also a former ACE-certified personal trainer.