Man picked up on strange smell months before cancer diagnosis

Brain tumour: Cancer Research UK on 'different types' in 2017

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Brain tumours describe a mass of abnormal cells growing anywhere inside the brain or skull region. Because the brain processes all information it receives for the senses, tumours on these organs can significantly interfere with taste and smell. For one patient, this resulted in strong imaginary scents of fireworks and matches.

Neil Danziger, a 47-year-old recruitment worker, first noticed his unusual symptoms in December 2020.

The father-of-two reported frequent dizzy spells accompanied by phantom smells of burning that lasted around 10 seconds.

Due to his history of high blood pressure and high cholesterol, he first had both markers checked, before subsequent tests revealed a tumour in his brain.

Neil said: “Since early December 2019 I’d been having lightheaded moments. Often if I’d been doing something I’d need to sit down, and it was followed by a strong sense of smell.

“I felt surprised but ready for battle – my game face came out. I felt as optimistic as I possibly could be because it was so small, only one cm.

“I’d heard of people having plum or apple-sized tumours and I had a pea. So, I thought ‘I have a pea, I can do this’.”

Neil was eventually checked into the Wellington Hospital in North London, where he underwent surgery to have the growth removed.

He noted: “As far as they could tell, they had got it all. Everything went pretty well and they were happy with my recovery.

“The next day I was feeling OK but a bit sore on the side of my head, where they’d operated.”

A sample of the tumour was sent to a laboratory, which was identified as low-grade pilocytic astrocytoma – a slow-growing tumour that arises from cells.

The Boston Children’s Hospital states that these gliomas are among the most treatable, boasting cure rates of over 90 percent.

Neil’s tumour, however, was surrounded by cells from a mutated gene more often seen in high-grade diffuse midline gliomas – primary central nervous system tumours – which his doctors thought warranted more thorough treatment.

Neil underwent six weeks of combined radiotherapy and chemotherapy, followed by a six-month course of chemotherapy.

Even once treatment is completed, it is not possible for doctors to predict whether a tumour will return or not.

When cancer recurs it often returns in the same spot as its predecessor, though it can appear elsewhere in the brain.

Like Neil, most patients are closely monitored after the treatment of their cancer is completed.

How common are phantom smells with brain tumours?

Brain tumours commonly present with headaches, seizures and several different neurological symptoms dependent on tumour location.

According to the Brain Tumour Charity, growths located in different parts of the brain may interfere with the sense of smell in various ways.

Tumours located in the temporal lobe sometimes trigger strange sensations and smells, alongside other neurological problems.

When a tumour compromises the frontal lobe, however, it is more likely to cause a complete loss of smell.

Those found growing in the region of the parietal lobe may disrupt signalling information from the senses, including smell and taste.

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