Brain and Spinal Cord Cancer: Patient Education


The cause of most brain or spinal cord tumors is not known. While most cases of these tumors are sporadic, some are inherited or have a genetic basis. Typically, inherited forms of brain or spinal cord tumors occur at younger ages and can be seen in combination with a family or personal history of other kinds of tumors. Also, specific types of brain or spinal cord tumors are associated with different inherited conditions.

If you are concerned that you or a family member may have a hereditary form of brain or spinal cord tumors, ask your physician for a referral to the Scott & White Cancer Genetics Clinic for testing to determine whether you have a genetic predisposition to the disease.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is a brain tumor?What is a brain tumor?

A primary brain tumor is a group of abnormal cells that starts in the brain. Most brain tumors are dangerous because — even though they don’t often spread throughout the body — they can spread in the brain and cause disability. Brain tumors can directly destroy brain cells. They can also damage cells by:

  • Producing inflammation
  • Placing pressure on other parts of the brain
  • Increasing pressure within the brain

A metastic or secondary brain tumor is cancer that started in another part of the body and spread to the brain.

Treatment for a brain tumor is dependent upon the type of tumor, the exact location and the size.

What are the symptoms of a brain tumor?What are the symptoms of a brain tumor?

Symptoms of a brain tumor vary due to a variety of different factors, the location, the size, the type of tumor and its rate of growth. Because different parts of the brain control different functions, the symptoms will be different depending on the location.

Possible symptoms of a brain tumor include:

  • New pattern of headaches
  • Unexplained nausea
  • Difficulty with balance
  • Hearing problems
  • Onset of seizures
  • Gradual loss of movement or sensation in an arm or leg
  • Loss of vision in one or both eyes
  • Difficulty with speech

Because the symptoms of a brain tumor could indicate other medical conditions, the best way to determine if you have a brain tumor is to have the appropriate medical tests, including a MRI or CT scan. Early detection and diagnosis can increase survival.

How is a brain tumor diagnosed?How is a brain tumor diagnosed?

There are a number of different methods to diagnose brain tumors. If a physician suspects the presence a brain tumor, he/she may recommend a variety of tests and procedures, including a neurological exam, imaging tests and a biopsy.

The most common imaging test is a Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) scan, which is the primary method for detecting a brain tumor. Tests to check for brain tumors can be ordered by your primary care physician, an oncologist or a neurosurgeon.

The information provided by the MRI or a computed tomorgrapy (CT) scan helps the physician classify the tumor as benign or malignant. Identifying the type of tumor allows the medical team to determine the most appropriate treatment plan.

In addition to diagnostic scans, other methods are used to detect a possible brain tumor.

What is the difference between a benign and a malignant tumor?What is the difference between a benign and a malignant tumor?

Once a brain tumor is diagnosed, through the use of neurological and imaging tests, physicians are able to determine if a tumor is cancerous or non-cancerous.

A benign brain tumor is noncancerous and is not usually rooted in the brain tissue, making it easier to remove. Benign brain tumors can return, although these tumors are less likely to recur than malignant tumors.

A malignant brain tumor is a cancer that originates in the brain. They typically grow faster than benign tumors and aggressively invade surrounding brain tissue.

Metastatic means that it has moved somewhere else in the body. While most brain tumors don't spread throughout the body, they can quickly spread throughout the brain and central nervous system.

What type of specialist do I see for my brain tumor treatment?What type of specialist do I see for my brain tumor treatment?

There can be a number of different specialists involved in the diagnosis and treatment of a brain tumor, including: a primary care physician, medical oncologist, neuro-oncologist, neurosurgeon, radiation oncologist and neuroradiologist.

Oncologists are internal medicine doctors who specialize in the diagnosis, evaluation and treatment of cancer.

Neuro-oncologists are neurologists trained to diagnose and treat patients with brain tumors and other types of tumors of the nervous system.

Neurosurgical oncologists are neurosurgeons who specialize in brain tumors.

Radiation oncologists are doctors who specialize in using radiation therapy to treat patients with cancerous and noncancerous tumors. Radiation therapy uses high-powered X-rays, seeds or radioactive material to shrink or destroy tumors.

Neuroradiologists specialize in interpreting images of the brain.

What are some of the treatments for a brain tumor?What are some of the treatments for a brain tumor?

If a brain tumor has been located, the first treatment option is usually surgery. But not all brain tumors can be removed surgically because of their location or their size. In those cases, chemotherapy or radiation therapy might be the only options to treat the tumor. For many patients a combination of therapies is needed to treat the tumor. Treating brain and spinal cord cancers takes a team approach and involves many specialties and treatments.

Because treatment for cancer also can damage healthy tissue, it's important to discuss possible long-term side effects of whatever treatment is being used with your doctor.

What questions should I ask my doctor?What questions should I ask my doctor?

If you have been diagnosed with a brain tumor, there are several questions you should be prepared to ask your physician:

  • What type of brain tumor do I have?
  • What is the grade of my tumor, and what does that mean?
  • Where is my brain tumor located? What part of my brain does it affect?
  • How aggressive is the tumor?
  • What are my treatment options?
  • What are the possible side effects of these treatments?
  • What treatment plan do you recommend?
  • Who will be a part of my healthcare team, and what do they do?
  • Who will be coordinating my overall treatment and follow-up?
  • Who can help me with managing the costs of my care?
  • What support services are available to me and my family?

You should also ask additional questions that are important to you. Bring a list of the questions with you to see your doctor so you don't forget any of them.

Related Resources

Additional information on brain and spinal cord tumors:

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