Brain and Spinal Tumors

Brain and spinal tumors affect the central information processing and communication centers of the body. As malignant tumors in the brain and spine grow, they interfere with normal brain and brain communication activity. These tumors rarely metastasize (spread) to other parts of the body outside of the central nervous system (CNS). Overall, the probability that a person will develop a malignant brain and/or spinal cord tumor in his or her lifetime is less than 1%1.

Credit: American Cancer Society

What are the different types of brain and spinal tumors?

There are several types of brain and spinal tumors that affect different cells of this region. Read more about the types of brain and spinal tumors at the Seattle Cancer Care Alliance website.

What are the symptoms of brain and spinal tumors?

Brain and spinal tumors may have a variety of symptoms, ranging from headaches to strokes. Different parts of the brain control different bodily and mental functions, so symptoms will vary depending on the tumor's location. Brain and spinal tumors may mimic other neurological disorders, and they share many of the same symptoms.

Some common symptoms of a brain and spinal tumor include:

  • A new seizure in an adult
  • The loss of function and sensation in the arms or legs
  • Loss of physical coordination, especially if it is associated with headache
  • Loss of vision in one or both eyes, especially the loss of peripheral vision
  • Double vision in conjunction with a headache
  • Loss of hearing with or without a feeling of dizziness
  • Speaking difficulty that increases over time
  • Severe nausea and vomiting, especially in the morning
  • Confusion and disorientation
  • Memory loss

How are braing and spinal tumors diagnosed?

Physical exams for brain and spinal tumors will focus on the symptom areas of suspected tumors. They will also include a neurological examination, which provides an assessment of sensory and motor responses, especially reflexes, to determine the health of the nervous system.

Imaging tests use x-rays, magnetic fields, or sound waves to create pictures of the inside of the body. For brain and spinal tumors these may include Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans and Computed tomography (CT) scans, positron emissions tomography (PET) scans, chest x-rays, and angiograms.

Biopsies involve removing and studying a small portion of brain or spinal tissue under a microscope.

Lumbar puncture, also known as a spinal tap, examines the cerebrospinal fluid for the presence of cancer cells. This test may help determine the extent of a brain or spinal tumor.

What are the different stages of brain and spinal tumors?

There are more than 120 types of brain and spinal tumors. Most medical institutions use the World Health Organization grading system to classify brain and spinal tumors.

What are the treatment options for brain and spinal tumors?

This brain and spinal tumor treatment information does not outline the particular treatment(s) a patient will receive. Rather, it provides general information about the typical treatments for these types of cancer.

Primary treatment options:

Surgery is the most common treatment for a brain and spinal tumor. The goal of brain and spinal tumor surgery is to remove as many tumor cells as possible; complete removal is the best outcome and "debulking" the tumor is a desired second outcome. In many cases, at the time of diagnosis, quick treatment decisions are necessary with regard to surgery. In other cases, inaccessibility of the brain and spinal tumor prohibits surgical treatments.

Radiation therapy uses high-energy rays or particles to kill cancer cells found in the brain. Radiation therapy is usually administered after brain and spinal surgery to destroy any remaining cancer cells. It is also the primary treatment for patients with metastatic brain tumors and patients who cannot have surgery due to the location of the tumor or other medical issues. Patients with brain and spinal tumors will likely receive some form of radiation therapy, which may completely eliminate tumors in some patients and increase survival for most patients.

Chemotherapy employs drugs to treat brain and spinal tumors. These drugs are injected into the bloodstream and they circulate to destroy cancer cells throughout the body. The toxic nature and many side effects of chemotherapy drugs, coupled with the uncertain outcome of chemotherapy treatment for brain and spinal tumors, makes it a less common treatment option.

Secondary treatment options:

Targeted therapies are drugs that prevent the growth of cancer cells and protect healthy brain and spinal cells from damage.

What are the risk factors of brain and spinal tumors?

Radiation exposure: is the best known environmental risk factor for the development of brain and spinal tumors. This exposure most often from comes from previous radiation therapy to treat another condition.

Age: Increasing age is a known risk factor as brain and spinal tumors are much more common in older adults.

Family History: A small portion of brain and spinal tumors occur in those with a family history of genetic syndromes that increase the potential for brain and spinal tumor development.

How can I prevent getting brain and spinal tumors?

  • Early detection and treatment of tumors that may metastasize to the brain and spine may reduce the risk of secondary tumors
  • Avoidance of radiation exposure 
Mikayla D. Williams , BS student, Nursing , The University of Arizona
Michael Principe, MA, Information Resources and Library Science , The University of Arizona
Works Cited: 
American Cancer Society (2014). Brain and Spinal Cord Tumors.
Works Consulted: 
The National Brain Tumor Society (2014).
American Brain Tumor Association (2014).
Children’s Brain Tumor Foundation (2014).