Perhaps the only thing more surprising than discovering your favorite pop star has a brain tumor is the realization that you might have one, too. At least that’s the message received by singer Sheryl Crow’s fans over the last week when the Grammy-award winner announced—and then her rep confirmed—that she had a benign tumor growing in her cranium. "I worried about my memory so much that I went and got an MRI, and I found out I have a brain tumor," Crow told an interviewer in Las Vegas on Friday. "And I was, like, 'See? I knew there was something wrong!’”
Indeed. Something was wrong—a tumor started growing in Crow’s brain and only by chance did doctors discover it. But on the list of medical maladies that can do serious harm, Crow’s type, referred to as meningioma, turns out to be exceedingly common, and likely to be entirely treatable.
Meningiomas are named after the lining of the brain, called the meninges, where they often grow, as a buildup of arachnoidal cap cells, which usually cover the surface of the brain. They’re the most common type of brain tumor reported in the U.S.; more than a third of all diagnosed brain tumors are meningiomas. And they skew toward women, particularly women in their 50s. Those who have already been treated for breast cancer are the most at risk, several studies have shown. Across all of those qualities, Crow, who beat breast cancer in 2006, was directly in the tumor’s crosshairs.
The tumors have been studied for decades, yet only in the past eight years have researchers been able to discover how prominent they are. About 20,000 cases are diagnosed each year in the U.S., most of them by accident—a patient gets a concussion or has a stroke and gets an MRI that reveals a lurking meningioma.
But Dr. David Schiff, a neuro-oncology researcher at the University of Virginia, says that many more people—hundreds of thousands, he suspects—could be walking around with them in their heads and never know it. The rate of detection overseas has been much higher. European scientists in 2007 discovered as many as 1 percent of people have meningioma tumors. One of the most common times of detection has been during autopsies.
The vast majority, over 90 percent, are noncancerous, but could still be intrusive, like Crow surmised. If it grows in a sensitive part of the brain, it could affect your speech or your motion or, like Crow, your memory. Most can be removed surgically, or zapped with an intense blast of radiation to stop their growth.
Considering their prominence, the obvious next frontier in tumor research has been how you get them. Some tumors are distinctly from environmental factors and others are entirely genetic. Meningiomas are a mix of the two.
Yale professor Elizabeth Claus, who directs all medical research at the university’s School of Public Health, is one of several top scientists to study risk factors. In a study this year published in the journal Cancer, she narrowed in on ionizing radiation, the kind you’d get in a dental X-ray. She discovered people who had reported having more X-rays had a higher incidence of meningiomas. (She stopped short of identifying a causal link, a rare prospect in the early stages of research).
But even if you never went to the dentist, you might not be entirely out of the woods. The vast community of tumor researchers is now narrowing in on family history. “We’re still learning just the basics about them,” says Claus. Her latest study will collect DNA samples. Considering women are disproportionately diagnosed, some suspect a breakthrough could be found in one’s genes.